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(2014) Volume XV, 2

Special Volume in collaboration with the North American Society for Seventeenth-Century French Literature (NASSFCL)


Guest Editors:  Jérôme Brillaud and Holly Tucker




Jérôme Brillaud and Holly Tucker.  Introduction:  Life/La Vie.                                           1

Adrien Paschoud.  La notion de « vie » dans l’écriture mystique du second XVIIe siècle L’exemple de Jean-Joseph Surin.     5

Christine Probes. ‘La vie’ selon les emblématistes: Les sens et les significations.                  18

Sophie Tonolo. Balzac aux confins de la vie: Le recueil épistolaire de 1647.                        33

Anne Theobald.  Plaisirs solitaires: Masturbation and Writing in the Histoire Comique de Francion.   46

Russ Ganim. The Great Chain of Being:  Life and Literature in Paul Contant’s Jardin et Cabinet Publique.     63

Kathryn Bastin.  Le singe est-il toujours singe?  Speculating on Ugliness, Refinement, and Beauty in Madame d’Aulnoy’s ‘Babiole.’82

Christine Rousseau.  Hommes et animaux des les contes de fées du XVIIe siècle.                 103

Ellen Welch.  Risking Life and Limb: Commerce and the Value of Life in Caribbean Adventure Narratives      121

Matthew Pagett. Materiality of Money in Seventeenth-Century French Comedy:  The Case of Le Parisien.  140

Perry Gethner.  The Resurrection Experience in Rotrou                                                    156

Megan Kruer.  Personification, Dissemination, Violence: Jean Racine’s Britannicus.          170

Eglantine Morvant.  La vie moderne selon Molière :
à hauteur de conscience de soi et de responsabilité devant la communauté dans Tartuffe, Le Festin de Pierre, et Le Misanthrope    189

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Review of Siefert, Lewis C. and Domma C. Stanton (Eds and Transl). Enchanted Eloquence: Fairy Tales by Seventeenth-Century French Women Writers. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, vol. 9. Toronto: CRRS, 2010. ISBN: 978-07727-2077-

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 107–109
Charlotte Trinquet du Lys
Article Text: 

The purpose of this volume is to translate a sample of eight seven­teenth-century French fairy tales into English. All the fairy tales included are authored by women, none have previously been made available in English, and all are representative of fairy-tale production during the late 1600s and of the authors’ unique styles. The volume is divided into a comprehensive introduction and five sections for each fairy-tale writer and her tales. It is followed by two sample critical texts of the period, intro­duced briefly, as a way of exemplifying the contemporary debate on the genre. At the end of the book, the reader will find a useful appendix listing the conteuses and their tales (the ones included in the volume are in bold­face), a comprehensive editor’s bibliography, and an index.

In their introduction, the editors start with an accurate background of the production of literary fairy tales in the late seventeenth century, con­textualizing these tales within the long historical and critical contexts of women’s history from ancient Greece to modern feminism. They then retrace the role of women in the production of the literary fairy tale, re­vealing the intertexts of these stories as proof that the fairy tale tradition was created and dominated by women who promoted themselves as indi­viduals within a growing literary field, legitimizing themselves in the process as authors. As the editors reveal, these fairy tales share significant references and motifs not only with Greek and Roman mythology, but also with medieval romances, with the pastoral and heroic novels of the early seventeenth century, and with the short novellas of their Italian predeces­sors, Straparola and Basile. Despite these influences, however, late seventeenth-century French conteuses distinguish their works both by re­fusing the restrictions imposed upon the novel after 1660, and those of the “compact” fairy-tale model of Perrault—rejecting the imposition of veri­similitude and instead relying heavily on the marvelous. As such, the late seventeenth-century conte de fées reveals itself as a predominantly “femi­nine” genre, one whose relationship to “modern” literary aesthetics is predicated on ideas that “natural,” intuitive eloquence is uniquely reserved for women.

The editors also offer a lengthy explanation for how this corpus of late-seventeenth-century French fairy tales has been received from the moment of their production to the present. Between 1690 and the eve of the French Revolution, women authors dominated the conte de fées genre; in addition to being widely read throughout France, England, Germany, and North America, their fairy tales were imitated and parodied in eight­eenth-century chapbooks. But after the late eighteenth-century conteuse Marie-Jeanne Le Prince de Beaumont began to compose fairy tales in acc­ordance with the “compact” Perraultean model, the dominant fairy-tale aesthetic began to shift. As a result, during the nineteenth-century, the long and complicated plots composed by earlier women authors were ex­cluded from the genre until the 1980s and 1990s when North-American feminist critics and literary historians renewed the interest in the forgotten genre, followed later by French scholars.

The editors have chosen samples of tales from each of the five leading conteuses of the 1690s, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Catherine Bernard, Charlotte-Rose Caumont de La Force, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villan­don and Henriette-Julie de Murat. The tales were selected to be—and are—a representative sample of the most prominent thematic and narrative features of each conteuse, while simultaneously showcasing the variety of approaches each writer adopted with respect to length and tone. The tales are chosen with particular attention to the plots, characters and situations, all of which complicate many stereotypical assumptions about the fairy tale as a genre.

Each section focuses on a particular author, starting with an accurate biography and overview of the individual’s writing strategies. Each tale is carefully annotated in the footnotes, which include clarifications about the specific meanings of certain words, as well as explanations of social, cul­tural, and literary norms and ideals relevant to the time period. The tales’ translation itself is precise, and apart from the repunctuating of long sen­tences and paragraphs, the original text is rendered meticulously.

In conclusion, this book, with its ample introduction and its interesting and relevant choice of tales, is of extreme value not only for scholars and students, but also for any lover of fairy tales wishing to rediscover and understand the origins of the French literary fairy tale tradition. I hope that the editors will consider more translations of this kind in the future.

Charlotte Trinquet du Lys, University of Central Florida


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Review of Woshinsky, Barbara R. Imagining Women’s Conventual Spaces in France, 1600-1800. The Cloister Disclosed. Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010. ISBN 978-0-75466754-4. Pp. 344. $119.95.

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 105–107
Jennifer R. Perlmutter
Article Text: 

Barbara Woshinsky has authored a thoroughly researched and fasci­nating study of how early-modern conventual spaces figure in contemporary culture and literature. While other scholars have studied the convents themselves or the literature their communities produce, Woshin­sky instead examines works that reference enclosure but were written by those who live outside convent walls. Her objective is “to illuminate the unique place the convent occupies in the early modern imaginary, in the context of space, gender and power” (6), and she fulfills this objective through an analysis of a broad spectrum of both canonical and rare literary works published in France between 1600 and 1800. At the same time, her study is truly intermural in its approach to chronology and geography with references to Michel de Certeau (13, 24), the Shinto religion (33), Sue Monk Kidd (84), Humpty Dumpty (243), Norman Rush (245), Jane Austen (247), Nathalie Sarraute (257), Typhoid Mary (277) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (295), among others.

The metonymic readings that serve as a framework for the book’s organization render the latter somewhat forced in places, but this attests to the complexity of the subject matter and its theoretical underpinnings. In the first chapter, Woshinsky focuses on the allegorical images of the body in Counter-Reformation writings and its imprecise relationships to gender and the soul. (For some reason, this chapter has a decidedly different feel from those that follow, as though it were not part of the same thesis.) In the second, she addresses Jean-Pierre Camus’s conflicted attitude toward the female body and the sensuality associated with it that leads him to ad­vocate for its enclosure in his stories. Following these initial chapters devoted to religious writings that feature metonymic and allegorical read­ings of the female body, Woshinsky guides us ever deeper into the convents themselves, beginning with more secular and feminocentric rep­resentations of thresholds (Chapter 3), parlors (Chapter 4), cells (Chapters 5 and 6) and, finally, tombs (appropriately, Chapter 7). This well-written analysis weaves in and out of convent grilles, gates, corridors, chapels, and cells and demonstrates that the convent of early-modern France, like the female body and its coverings (veils, gowns, bed sheets) that it con­tained, were considered alternately hermetic and penetrable.

Woshinsky deftly guides the reader through this labyrinthine reading with a healthy dose of humor. I would often find myself blindsided by a sly aside (“And what does it mean for a soul to have nipples?” (55)), (“Fi­nally, what is accented by the title is…the fact that the narrator is…Portuguese: hence doomed—or free—to enjoy a degree of southern and female unreason not properly displayed in the country of Descartes, even by women” (247)); dry sarcasm (“However, there is a consistency in the women’s treatment, in that both Deucalie and Nerée are seen most positively once they are dead” (90)); a play on words (“Resurrected for the wedding, he fails to come up to conjugal expectations” (179)); or an hon­est criticism of her subject (“The next morning, he writes a triumphant (and bad) poem” (227)). Woshinsky is obviously having fun with her subject, and her readers cannot help but do the same. When she declares in exasperation that “[t]he vulgarity of the ending [of a poem written by a monk] taxes the translating skill of this scholar” (231), we should not be surprised that her subsequent translation is just as double-edged and naughty as the original.

Another unexpected quality of this book is its bibliography. While Woshinsky engages with seminal works by senior scholars, she does not limit herself to these studies. Instead, she also demonstrates a broad colle­giality infrequent in published academic works. Her bibliography includes conference papers and unpublished dissertations as well as other refer­ences to works by less-established academics. This approach, combined with the intertextual citations throughout, creates an overall impression of a current and well-balanced study.

I have very few criticisms of this work. There are some errors of proofreading: the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes occurred in 1685 and not in 1696 (162); there is no English translation for two quotations on the bottom of page 92; the English translation should precede the French original in the middle of page 270. Content-wise, I was surprised not to find a discussion of Mlle de Scudéry’s “Histoire de Sapho” in the section on feminutopias (124-34) nor a reference to Daniella J. Kostroun’s work on the Port-Royal nuns in Chapter 5. Finally, there is no mention of the Querelle des femmes which deserves at least a clin d’œil from the author. Nevertheless, these minor points do not detract from what is otherwise an excellent analysis and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Jennifer R. Perlmutter, Portland State University

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Review of Racevskis, Roland. Tragic Passages: Jean Racine’s Art of the Threshold. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8387-5684-3. Pp. 221. $47.50.

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 103–105
Ellen R. Welch
Article Text: 

Racevskis’s excitingly fresh interpretation of Racine’s secular tragedies focuses on their “liminary esthetics”—that is, their exploration of “identity in suspension. . . . the human predicament of being caught in between states of being” (15). Drawing insights from Derrida, Nietzsche, and especially Heidegger, the author identifies a “poetics of the threshold” in Racine’s plays and convincingly argues that the tragedies’ distinctive quality lies in their illumination of the psychological anguish of characters self-consciously poised between past and future, action and inaction, subjection and sovereignty, life and death.

The book’s nine short chapters analyze Racine’s nine secular tragedies from La Thébaïde to Phèdre, examining their dramatization of characters poised at the thresholds of power, love, and existence itself. These thought-provoking readings exemplify Racevskis’s call for a flexible approach to Racine’s work that recognizes each play’s singularity while exploring their shared engagement with the problem of liminality. Among the book’s rich and varied discussions, Chapter 3’s exploration of “temporal construction” in Andromaque is one of the stand-outs. Here, Racevskis breaks from traditional interpretations emphasizing the way characters are haunted by the past and shifts his focus, subtly but crucially, to how they express the “paltriness of the present” (81) and the “radical ambiguity of the future” (90). In addition to teasing out Andromaque’s complex temporal structure, this reading brilliantly analyzes how the play imparts feelings of terrifying uncertainty to its spectators. Indeed, throughout the book, Racevskis makes the case that “in-betweenness” not only serves as a major fictional theme but also generates the plays’ emotional effect on audiences. For example, he usefully compares La Thébaïde with Rodogune to illustrate, by way of contrast with Corneille’s depiction of power’s dangers, how Racine derives terror from its revelation of the throne as an unresolved void. Other readings elegantly synthesize analyses of Racine’s poetic language with attention to the plays’ inscription of dramatic space, time, and movement; this is especially true for the chapters devoted to Britannicus and Bérénice, which demonstrate how the idea of the threshold permeates all aspects of Racine’s dramaturgy up to and including set design.

Racevskis’s stated ambition in tackling all of Racine’s tragedies in this streamlined book is to articulate a new basis for understanding the coherence of the playwright’s work. While the book accomplishes this goal, one drawback to its comprehensiveness is that it sometimes leaves the reader wanting more on a particular play. For example, Chapter 4’s skillful reading of Néron’s court in Britannicus as a Foucauldian panopticon concludes with a tantalizing gesture to the thresholds occupied by an excluded Britannicus and imprisoned Junie (103), leaving the reader eager to know how Racevskis would interpret the play’s expression of these characters’ suspended states of being. In other respects, the completist approach is a strength. By proceeding chronologically through the tragedies, Racevskis succeeds in demonstrating the evolution of Racine’s liminary aesthetics throughout his career. The thresholds structuring earlier plays often delimit a space of worldly power. By the later tragedies (Mithridate, Iphigénie, and Phèdre), the characters’ articulation of their suspended state points toward the “ontological threshold” between existence and non-existence. In these chapters, the book also returns to a Heideggerian interrogation of poetic language, as when Chapter 9 considers Phèdre’s sustained examination of language’s failure to communicate innermost truths. The book concludes with a brief analysis of the resolution of the liminary aesthetic in sacred tragedies Esther and Athalie, where ambivalence dissolves under the certainty provided by an omnipotent Judeo-Christian god. This coda effectively throws into relief the secular plays’ reliance on the aesthetic of the threshold, which, Racevskis argues, is especially compelling for today’s audiences who are grappling with the biological and ecological limits of existence.

Precisely by setting aside well-worn, more narrowly historical con­cerns for Racine’s relationship to Jansenist theology or the development of French national consciousness, Tragic Passages succeeds in articulating the play’s relevance for modern audiences and opens new lines of inquiry without foreclosing the ambiguity of the plays’ meanings. Very occasion­ally, the desire to liberate the plays from narrow historicism goes a little too far. For example, I wonder whether “self-actualization” is really the best term to designate the state to which Racine’s characters aspire, loaded as it is with the particular assumptions of twentieth-century American psy­chology. Yet such a minor anachronism is a small price to pay for Tragic Passages’ refreshing point of view on Racine’s tragic œuvre. Throughout the book’s pages, Racevskis articulates theoretically sophisticated readings with such lucidity that they could be employed in many undergraduate classrooms. This is no small advantage for a book that aims and succeeds at offering richly insightful new ways to appreciate Racine’s works in our era.

Ellen R. Welch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Review of Krüger, Annika Charlotte. Lecture sartrienne de Racine: Visions existentielles de l'homme tragique. Tubingen: Narr Verlag, 2011. ISBN: 978-3-8233-6620-1. Pp. 275. 74€

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 101–103
Nina Ekstein
Article Text: 

In the introduction to Lecture sartrienne de Racine, Krüger indicates that her goal is to juxtapose Sartre’s and Racine’s “conceptions de l’homme et de la condition humaine” as well as “leurs stratagèmes dramaturgico-psychologiques” (11), in order to demonstrate the modernity of Racine. More concretely, this comparatist study has two objectives. First, Krüger demonstrates the similarities between Sartre’s ideas and those emanating from Racine’s circle, primarily Pierre Nicole and Pascal. Second, the author traces in great detail the manifestation of these ideas in Racine’s Britannicus, Bajazet, and Andromaque. The ideas in question come primarily from several of Sartre’s philosophical texts (above all, L’Être et le néant) and from two of his plays, Huis clos and Les Mouches. Major points of contact between Sartre and Racine include the importance of the other/autrui for both, the close tie between Racinian amour-propre and Sartrian mauvaise foi, and the proclivity that both demonstrate for closed spaces in their plays. She works through these ideas with great care and perseverance. The notion of the regard is extremely important for both, and Krüger discusses numerous variations: “le regard d’autrui,” “le regard supérieur” (for example Amurat in Bajazet and Agrippine in Britannicus), and “le regard regardé.” Other subjects include role-playing, hatred of the other turned against the self, the urge to possess the other, and the effect of death on how one is judged. As my listing indicates, there is considerable breadth in subject matter.

While the author presents careful, thoughtful work, and shows great promise as a future scholar, the Lecture sartrienne de Racine exemplifies why a dissertation should not be published without revision. Many dissertations have been turned into books, but in order for the gap between the two to be bridged, certain important adjustments need to be made. There are four areas in this study where the absence of such modifications is problematic. The first concerns the audience for the book. Since a dissertation is above all a demonstration of one’s intellectual accomplishments, thought is given to impressing the public with one’s erudition, rather than to drawing in and engaging the reader. This 252-page book contains 1,118 footnotes and literally hundreds of quotes from Racine’s plays. It is virtually impossible to read a paragraph without the flow of the argument being repeatedly interrupted by footnotes and quotes. The second dissertation-like feature, while not as off-putting for the reader, instead compromises the value of the study as a whole: discussion is limited to only a few texts by each author. Krüger examines only three of Racine’s twelve plays and only two of Sartre’s eleven. Similar limitations are placed on Sartre’s philosophical texts. Such a strategy makes perfect sense for a dissertation, but a book that contains only two tiny mentions of Phèdre should not be entitledLecture sartrienne de Racine. It is never made clear whether the ideas expressed would function equally well in discussions of other plays by both playwrights. The author makes two half-hearted attempts to justify her choices among Racine’s plays, but one does not apply well to Andromaque (the centrality of the struggle for freedom [21]) and the other—the conception of love—is in no way limited to Britannicus, Bajazet, and Andromaque. Third, there is a decided tendency to include tangential work, so that we find all of Pascal’s mentions of flies; a lengthy and ill-fitting examination of the baroque that includes Dionysius, melancholy, the camp, and cross-dressing; and an exposition of Sartre, Calderón, and Pirandello that excludes Racine entirely. Chapter IV, in particular, reads like a grab bag of tangentially related material. The fourth problem with the book is its structure. As is typical of dissertations, the first chapter deals with the scholarly and theoretical background, but no concrete reference is made to Racine’s theater until page 100, and none to Sartre’s theater until page 129. All four of these areas should have been addressed before publishing this dissertation as a book, and all four make the book less engaging for the reader.

I would like to emphasize that whatever problems there are here, Annika Krüger shows enormous promise as a scholar. The careful manipulation of detail in conjunction with wide-ranging abstract thought is impressive. The patient intelligence and care that went into producing this study are evident on every page. In conclusion, this is a careful study by a young scholar who shows much promise for the future, but the book should have been reworked before publication.

Nina Ekstein, Trinity University

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Review of McLeod, Jane. Licensing Loyalty: Printers, Patrons, and the State in Early Modern France. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2011. ISBN 978-0-271-03768-4. Pp. 312. $74.95

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 99–101
Kathrina Ann LaPorta
Article Text: 

Jane McLeod’s Licensing Loyalty is a clearly written and cogently ar­gued study of state-media relations in the ancien régime. Tracing the evolution of the French state’s regulation of the printing industry from 1667 through the Revolution, McLeod examines the “mutually beneficial” relationship existing between royal authorities and provincial printers through a presentation of case studies and archival data (8, 123). Whereas previous scholars have analyzed printers as operating outside of and in opposition to the state, McLeod convincingly demonstrates their agency in lobbying government officials for favorable policies. In their dealings with royal officials, printers adopted five distinct but overlapping identities: as university men, as clients engaged in patronage networks, as businessmen, as guildsmen, and as loyal officers of the king. The latter roleconstitutesthe central focus of the book (35), as McLeod meticulously investigates the ways in which printers self-fashioned an identity as “pillars of monar­chy” and thereby positioned themselves as loyal subjects of the crown as they vied for the limited number of printing licenses permitted in the king­dom. Far from advocating for freedom of the press, McLeod maintains that the printers themselves—initially in Paris but ultimately throughout the countryside—clamored for increased regulation of their industry by insisting upon the dangers presented by those who would seek profit from the publication of seditious works. While provincial printers favored regulation in order to reduce competition, to protect the dignity of their art, and to solidify their own wealth, royal officials considered the use of li­censes, quotas, and permissions as a means to limit the subversive potential of the printed word in the aftermath of the Fronde and the rise of religious heterodoxy. Beginning with the 1667 order in council requiring a license to print in provincial towns, the French government expanded its regulation of the book trade throughout the eighteenth century, creating a Bureau de la Librairie with its own inspectors and enhancing the role of the chancellor, lieutenants of police, and intendants in enforcing the quo­tas that limited the number of printers in France. As McLeod argues at several junctures, the interaction between the provincial press and the French crown was the site of endless lobbying and bargaining, and in highlighting the state’s struggle to license loyalty, McLeod demonstrates that absolutism was “negotiated rather than imposed” (8).

The first comprehensive evaluation of the French state’s licensing policy, McLeod’s study shifts the field of the history of the book in two important ways. First, Licensing Loyalty centers on the network of printers in the French provinces, rather than emphasizing the book trade in Paris or the importation of forbidden books from abroad. In this respect, McLeod both challenges and complements work by Henri-Jean Martin, Robert Darnton, and others who have overlooked the complications arising from the government’s efforts to establish its authority throughout French ter­ritory. Second, McLeod diverts attention from the clandestine “literary underground” and sheds light instead on the authorized, state-sanctioned press. By analyzing the ways in which provincial printers alternately co­operated with and subverted royal officials, McLeod’s work paints a more complete picture of the public sphere in early modern France. In this re­gard, one wonders why McLeod waits until Chapter 7 to examine the reality “Behind the Rhetoric”—the extent to which licensed printers were responsible for the production and distribution of clandestine texts. Char­acterizing the printers’ allegiance to the crown as a “grudging and contingent loyalty” in the study’s final pages (210), McLeod ultimately qualifies her own assessment of provincial printers as “pillars of monar­chy” in a pretty significant manner. The fact that France’s own elite printing houses disseminated texts previously believed to have originated from Grub Street merits fuller consideration, and McLeod could have in­tegrated this material throughout the study to add further nuance to one of her book’s central arguments.

McLeod’s social and political history evokes the fascinating characters populating the world of book production in early modern France, empha­sizing the material concerns drivingtheir motivations and the complexity of their interactions with royal officials. Well-researched and written with verve, Licensing Loyalty is a valuable contribution to the history of the book, to the study of state-media relations, and to the history of French administration. 

Kathrina LaPorta, New York University

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Review of Delehanty, Ann T. Literary Knowing in Neoclassical France: From Poetics to Aesthetics. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 209. $80.

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013) : 96–99
Christopher Braider
Article Text: 

The great merit of Delehanty’s book is to challenge a pervasive myth responsible for the grand siècle’s monolithic isolation from the general flow of French cultural history: the notion of the era’s near universal sub­scription to la doctrine classique.  Whether articulated in terms of neo-Aristotelian unities, the system of bienséances, or the rigid separation of “higher” and “lower” genres, the French seventeenth century’s poetic out­put and the critical apparatus deployed to describe and evaluate it are said to have been the subject of fixed rational rules grounded in the putatively objective properties of the poetic work of art. It sufficed to set a given work alongside the timeless archetypes of the ancient past and apply the infallible laws those archetypes teach in order to determine its character and worth. True, especially dating from the querelle des anciens et des modernes touched off by Perrault’s “Siècle de Louis le Grand” of 1687, the discourse of classical rules was increasingly confronted by the emer­gent, sentiment-based discourse of taste: an enigmatic organ of appreciation possessed of an ineffable je ne sais quoi impervious to ra­tional legislation. The rise of taste is nonetheless said to have marked the beginning of the end of classical doctrine, ushering in a defiantly modern, unapologetically anti-classical culture whose triumph coincides with the transition to the siècle des Lumières. Where, then, les classiques asserted the primacy of a rational poetics of objective rules, enlightened modernes explored an aesthetics rooted in private feeling that licensed the eighteenth-century rejection of eternal verities in favor of the contingencies of empirical experience.

Delehanty opens her counter-narrative by showing how the discourse of feeling was decisively at work at the very moment classical culture reached its apogee with the inauguration of Louis XIV’s personal reign in 1661. As she notes in her introduction, on “mimesis and transcendence” in neoclassical France, the noontime of the poetics of rules is largely con­fined to the decades from 1630 to 1660, when the order of the day was perfection of the dramatic and especially tragic vraisemblance required to achieve a fully convincing imitation of affecting human action. So long as poets focused on the representational technologies needed to create the emotional impact associated with a well-wrought tragic plot, the discourse of rules held sway. However, even at this stage the rules aimed not simply to convince but above all to please; and the pleasure involved was con­sciously emotional—a pleasure, moreover, that, as the tragedies of Pierre Corneille in particular demonstrate, was readily described as sublime. As Delehanty remarks, the emphasis on mimesis, creating a persuasive repre­sentation of human action, inevitably constrained dramatic poetry’s reach: “Tragedies present the human condition, allow us to see ourselves, and move us to reform ourselves, if necessary. They do not go beyond the limits of our world or our understanding” (16). Nevertheless, especially in the vraisemblance extraordinaire that Corneille claimed for his own pro­ductions, poetic mimesis could and did strain the confines of ordinary experience by inducing readers and spectators to swallow feats of self-sacrificial nobility they would have choked on in the natural course of things.

It is, though, only in the years following Louis XIV’s seizure of per­sonal power that the ersatz transcendence in which Corneille specialized became a dominant public theme. As Delehanty puts it, “In the late 1660s and early 1670s, the aspirations for the literary work changed signifi­cantly. No longer was the goal of the literary work only to show us the human condition, but also it aspired to something beyond that condition. Literary criticism took a turn toward the transcendental realm” (18). In making this turn, poets and their critics laid claim to a mode of knowing as transcendental as poets’ newfound aspirations. Where the rule-based po­etics of mimesis set limits roughly coincident with those of ordinary experience, the self-conscious transcendentalisms of the nascent Ludovi­can age pushed beyond; and the vehicle of transcendence was the je ne sais quoi of aesthetic feeling.

The most obvious signal of this change is the publication of Boileau’s 1674 translation of Longinus’s On the Sublime. In the perspective of the traditional interpretation of la doctrine classique, this presents an apparent paradox. For, on the basis of the simultaneous publication of L’Art poétique, Boileau is conventionally identified as the very embodiment of the theory of classical rules. The turning point in Delehanty’s counter-narrative is accordingly chapter 3, “Boileau and the Sublime,” in which she not only argues for the emergent role of transcendence in L’Art poétique itself but goes on to discuss Boileau’s increasing abandonment of a poetics of rules throughout the rest of his career, culminating in his last three Réflexions, where analysis of the objective properties of literary works yields to talk about the effects the sublime produces on readers in the domain of transcendent feeling.

What gives Delehanty’s ground-breaking reading of Boileau still greater weight is the way she anchors that poet’s evolving transcendental­ist speculations in the antecedent writings of Pascal and Bouhours. Pascal supplies at once the warrant and model for the story the book tells. As Delehanty argues in chapter 1, Pascal captures not only the underlying conflict between the human condition on which literary mimesis fastens and the transcendence of God but also the key appeal to inchoate feeling, the famous Pascalian “heart,” as the one true means of achieving knowl­edge of the absolute. As Delehanty subtly demonstrates, Pascal’s model poses problems. If the chief organ of literary knowing is the heart, ena­bling poets and readers to escape the confines of mere mimetic reason in the way Pascal urges it does in our relation to the divine, then literature arrogates creative powers reserved for God alone. Moreover, as Pascal sees it, the only means of provoking the conversion of flesh-bound crea­tures like us is the kind of direct, personal teaching modeled by Jesus Christ in the gospels and provided by private reading of scripture con­ceived as the living word of God. Whence, in chapter 2, Delehanty’s analysis of Bouhours’s efforts to thread the needle of “divine and human creation” in order to grant the latter the power of adducing sacred truths without falling into the sacrilege of assigning human beings a divinity they cannot possess. What Boileau finds in the sublime, then, is a creative power authenticated precisely by what Longinus had already called the more than merely human origin for which the sublime serves as the me­dium. In the encounter with the sublime we discover both truths that transcend ordinary human experience and our own equally transcendent power to do so. The je ne sais quoi of sublime feeling thereby enables us to have our cake and eat it, too, in that what sublime poets create and readers feel is our own only insofar as we become vehicles of the tran­scendence sublimity presents.

In a sense, Delehanty’s story reaches its high point with Boileau: the rest reads like a tale of inevitable decline. With chapter 4, on Rapin, the rigorous transcendence Pascal, Bouhours, and Boileau aim for fades into the sentimentality of moral emotion. What had given access, however im­perfectly, to knowledge of the divine becomes a means of teaching virtue; and while virtue makes us better beings, it does not change our natures as carnal inhabitants of the world of lowly mimesis. Rapin’s disenchanting emphasis on virtue grows still more limiting in his English successor, Dennis, the subject of chapter 5. For though Dennis seeks to ground liter­ary experience in scriptural religion, he can only do so on the basis of a theory of mind that reduces both literature and scripture to an empty occa­sion for the manifestation of mental powers that have, in the end, nothing to do with either. A distinctively literary mode of knowing ceases to be literary at all, opening the way for the aesthetic theories of Du Bos, where, as Delehanty argues in chapter 6, the focus on the psychology of human emotion drives out not only detailed analysis of the works of art that prompt it but transcendence as well.

In one sense, Delehanty’s version of the shift from classical poetics to Enlightenment aesthetics brings us back to what has always seemed its retrospective moment of inception, namely the emergence of eighteenth-century aesthetics seen as at once a triumph and consequence of Enlight­enment secularity. To the absolutism of classical rules enlightened moderns oppose the relativisms of human experience; and a prime articu­lation of this contrast is the doctrine of the aesthetic and the primacy it awards pure private feeling. However, by showing both how deeply the antecedents of Enlightenment aesthetics reach back into the neoclassical age and how the proto-aesthetics of the sublime are linked to a thirst for transcendence Pascal’s and Boileau’s early eighteenth-century descen­dants reject, Delehanty enables us to begin to think about the underlying historical dialectic by which, in the aesthetic writings of Kant and the Ro­mantics if not of Burke and Hume, transcendence makes a comeback. What I most heartily recommend in the book is thus the renewed sense of dynamism it brings both to the grand siècle and to its contribution to the larger patterns of French and more broadly European intellectual and artistic culture.

Christopher Braider, University of Colorado, Boulder

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Review of La Motte, Antoine Houdar de. Les Originaux ou L’Italien. Édition établie par Francis B. Assaf. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8233-6717-8. Pp. 76

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 94–95
Perry Gethner
Article Text: 

La Motte is best remembered today for his role in the second round of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. But he was also a prolific and gifted playwright who tried his hand at virtually every dramatic and operatic genre, as well as dramatic theory. Les Originaux, his first very work for the stage, composed at age 21, is a very entertaining comedy that gives us glimpses of his future potential. In addition, this play, destined for the Italian troupe, provides a fairly typical example of the type of comic entertainment they were providing Parisian audiences in the final decades of the century. It also shows how far from the original commedia dell’arte model this company had moved by 1693: only about one-third of the scenes are improvisations (in Italian), while the vast majority of the play consists of written-out scenes in French. At the same time, the comedy incorporates episodes of singing and dancing, sometimes combined with machine effects.

Arguably the comedy’s most original feature is the abundance of dra­matic and musical satire. Some of the allusions constitute a celebration of the great masters of the preceding generation, especially Molière, who is repeatedly named and imitated. One surprising touch is that the heroine, Colombine, not only displays a passion for drama and claims Molière as her favorite author, but also composes comedies and displays real ability. Although she is not a bas-bleu and admits that she is exaggerating her passion for wit in order to discourage her father in his attempts to marry her off, she may well signal La Motte’s appreciation for the women writ­ers of his day. At the same time, La Motte’s spokespersons in the play, who, startlingly, include Colombine’s tyrannical father, criticize both the lack of talent on the part of current playwrights and the lack of interest from audience members, who either spend their time in the theater flirting with the opposite sex or spend long periods away fighting in the war. Ref­erences to opera focus on the poor quality of the libretti and on the sameness of the recent works—a point Assaf underscores by listing the new operas produced in the three-year period preceding La Motte’s com­edy. Although La Motte feels that composers and poets working in the decade following the deaths of Lully and Quinault are sticking too closely to the consecrated models, that does not stop him from quoting directly from two of those masters’ operas.

Assaf provides a wealth of useful information that helps to explain the historical and cultural context, while identifying many of the numerous literary and musical allusions and explaining their pertinence. However, there are some that he fails to identify. These include the direct quoting of the hymn to liberty from Lully and Quinault’s Isis (III.5) at the start of the comedy’s final divertissement, and there are interesting structural and thematic parallels between the two works. The expression “la folle enchère” (III.12) must have been intended as a reference to the comedy by Mme Ulrich and Dancourt, performed just three years earlier. And the series of theatrical allusions in I.4 needs elucidation. As Lancaster noted, the recently deceased actor and playwright was probably Raymond Pois­son, and the authors of two comedies dealing with the Phaéton myth were Boursault and Palaprat. I suggest that the playwright who, after a series of tragedies set in Rome, chose a Byzantine subject is Campistron. The refer­ence to a “prodigue Boisset” in the passage from Colombine’s comedy that she reads aloud presumably was a topical reference, as well. If, as Assaf suggests, Colombine’s compositional activity was meant to refer to Mme de Villedieu, who had died ten years earlier but whose novels still retained their popularity, this could conceivably allude to her lover, An­toine de Boësset de Villedieu (whose name she would adopt, though they were never married).

The well-researched introduction combines relevant background in­formation (about the author, the history of commedia dell’arte companies in France, the makeup of the Italian troupe in 1693, the play’s initial re­ception) with a detailed, scene-by-scene analysis of the play. It could have been expanded to relate this dramatic debut to La Motte’s dramatic career as a whole. Les Originaux is in many respects a first draft of his Moderne position, especially given the praise of liberty, originality, and preference for contemporary writers and taste.

The text, presented in original spelling, is carefully presented and an­notated. Typos are rare, but three of them risk confusing the reader: a speech attributed to a wrong character (II.5), a faulty listing of characters in a scene heading (III.5), and a stage direction that is centered and printed in all capital letters (III.9). The bibliography is short but helpful, and the illustrations, showing the frontispieces and some of the original music, are a delight.

Francis Assaf is to be commended for reintroducing this charming and historically significant comedy to modern readers. The volume definitely belongs in every university library.

Perry Gethner, Oklahoma State University

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“The Truth about Reasoning”: Veiled Propaganda and the Manipulation of Absolutist Authority in Eustache Le Noble’s La Pierre de touche politique (1688–1691)

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 72–93
Kathrina Ann LaPorta
Article Text: 

Printable PDF of LaPorta_72_93

I. Introduction: The Political Stakes of Eustache Le Noble’s Pasquinades

In a letter dated August 5, 1694, French chief of police Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie confesses his incapacity to prevent the publication of satirical pamphlets penned by then-imprisoned aristocrat Eustache Le Noble:

Ce n’est pas la première fois qu’il a été défendu à cet auteur de mettre au jour des écrits de sa composition, ni la première fois qu’on a enlevé d’entre ses mains, pendant sa prison, les ouvrages de sa façon qu’il y vendait avec beau­coup de scandale. Il a toujours trouvé des protecteurs et des partisans qui ont cru qu’il était utile de laisser à cet homme la liberté d’écrire sur toutes sortes de matières. On ne sau­rait dire combien de manières il en a abusé, et à quel excès il ne s’est porté, ni répondre non plus qu’il se contienne à l’avenir. (Reynie)

This is not the first time that this author was forbidden from bringing to light his writings, nor the first time that someone removed from his hands, during his imprison­ment, his works that he was scandalously selling there. He has always found protectors and supporters who found it useful to grant this man the freedom to write on all sorts of subject matters. One cannot say how many ways he has abused this freedom, and to what excess he has taken it, nor whether he will control himself in the future. (Reynie)

Even from the confines of his jail cell in the Conciergerie, Le Noble re­mained as elusive and subversive as his texts—an author whose “abuse of freedom” and penchant for “excess” paradoxically earned him both the contempt of royal authorities as well as the respect of high-powered pro­tectors such as the Marquise de Maintenon (Godenne XII; Mangeot 73).[1]In this regard, it would seem that he upheld a family tradition initiated by his great-great-grandfather, Pierre I, who had also found ingenious ways to use the French throne to his own advantage (Hourcade 79). Beginning with his short career as procureur général in the Parliament of Metz in the 1670s, where he acquired a reputation as a reckless spender and a “dishonest adventurer,” Le Noble quickly became a politically rebellious figure, penning subversive poetry and serving several prison sentences before being banished in 1693 (24, 55).[2]Despite his notoriety and complicated relationship with the monarchy, Le Noble managed to earn a living from his pen during a period in which he was not only imprisoned, but also one in which authorship was only beginning to become a financially viable career (Cherbuliez 476; Mangeot 76). Le Noble was an extremely prolific, well-known author in his time, who published works in a wide variety of literary genres until his death in 1711.[3]  

Although Nicolas de la Reynie remarks Le Noble’s extraordinary ca­pacity to “bring to light” subversive publications from the placeof marginality par excellence, few literary scholars have attempted toeluci­datethe political and ideological stakes of Le Noble’s pasquinades.[4] A collection of 142 satirical dialogues published anonymously between 1688 and 1694 and 1702 and 1709, these polemical texts achieved then-enormous press runs of up to six thousand (Klaits 146) and analyzed the affaires du temps with a combination of wit and historical accuracy.[5] If satire is a “perennially elusive, often paradoxical and contradictory, liter­ary phenomenon” (Rosen 4), the pasquinade, by definition an anonymous lampoon, permits a more transgressive form of ridicule precisely because of the author’s capacity to figuratively hide behind his words. Named after Pasquino, a witty and sarcastic tailor who lived in Rome during the fif­teenth century, the pasquinade tradition developed after Italians began to affix satirical placards onto a statue later discovered under the defunct tailor’s shop. The term pasquinade would later come to signify any kind of satirical attack, especially those against political authorities, whether posted to the statue of Pasquino or circulated as a manuscript (“Pasqui­nade”). It is the pasquinade’s particularly scathing nature that distinguishes it as a form of satire. Though written more than half a cen­tury after the texts in question, Diderot’s entry on “Pasquin” in the Encylopédie encapsulates the complicated status of the pasquinade during the ancien régime: “Cette licence qui dégénere quelquefois en libelles diffamatoires, n’épargne personne pas même les papes, & cependant elle est tolérée” (This license that sometimes degenerates into defamatory li­bels does not spare anyone, not even the popes, and yet it is tolerated) (“Pasquin”).

How are we to understand the “toleration” of Le Noble’s pasquinades within an increasingly centralized absolutist state that censored publica­tions? True to the inherent license afforded by the pasquinade genre, Le Noble’s political dialogues derisively mock the enemies of French mon­arch Louis XIV, but they do so in a fundamentally dissimulative manner. Although La Pierre de touche politique dialogues deride the king’s rivals, the character traits for which these enemies are lambasted echo criticisms of Louis XIV advanced by the late seventeenth-century worldly intelli­gentsia. As we shall see, these pamphlets are readable as supporting and subverting the French crown, operating as propaganda on two levels: on the first level, they promote Louis XIV’s interests against England, the House of Austria, and the papacy. However, on a second level, the pas­quinades question absolutism and examine the viability of other political organizations. The Pierre de touche politique pamphlets necessitate a careful analysis precisely because they operate on two levels of meaning, as we are reminded in a passage from one pamphlet that metonymically functions as a mise en garde for Le Noble’s dissimulative practices:“Conçois bien ce que je vais te dire, & tu verras que tu n’entres point dans le fond essentiel, mais que tu prends seulement la superficie des choses” (Hearwhat I’m telling you, & you will see that you do understand the heart of the matter,but that you are only grasping the superficial level of things) (La Fable 33). It is through this constant interplay between “le fond essentiel” and “la superficie des choses” that the pasquinades dem­onstrate satire’s particular effectiveness as a mode of critique in a politically repressive regime, as well as the specificity of Le Noble’s sa­tirical techniques within the body of late seventeenth-century pamphlet literature. As we shall see, these works exploit dialogism both as a form and as a function, putting into place an interpretive structure whichmodels the type of active reading practice required to ascertain their meaning and ultimately demonstrating pamphlet literature’s importance as a space for critical reflection in fin-de-siècle France. 

II. La Pierre de touche politique (1688–1691): Propaganda as a Double-edged Sword

Written during the early years of the controversial War of the Grand Alliance (1688–1697), the 29 pamphlets that compose La Pierre de touche politique shed light on the complexity of the publicity wars between Louis XIV and his foreign enemies. After evoking Lucian’s “prose satirique” as a model (La Bibliothèque 4), Le Noble explains the collection’s name through a simile claiming that his texts function like a “touchstone” that exposes the “truth” about European affairs:

[L]’on a jugé à propos de donner au corps entier de l’Ouvrage le titre général Pierre de Touche Politique, parce que comme cette Pierre par son attouchement découvre la pureté ou la fausseté de l’Or, aussi ces petits Dialogues tout en badinant découvrent toute la Politique sur laquelle rou­lent les affaires de l’Europe, & en démêlent le faible & le solide. (4)

One judged in this regard to give to the entire corpus the general title Political Touchstone, because like this Stone that through its touch reveals the purity or falseness of Gold, so also these little Dialogues, while bantering, re­veal the Politics driving the affairs of Europe and separate the weak and the solid therein. (4)

Even as he invokes tradition and his imitation of Lucianic “satirical prose,” however, Le Noble also aligns with the modern values of innova­tion and emulation, immediately distinguishing his project from that of the Greek satirist by insisting on the political and historical importanceof the “vérités secrètes” revealed in his dialogues (3). Just as early authors of the nouvelle historique claim to reveal “a secret history” of political events as a pretext to rewrite and undermine the royal historiographers whose works they supposedly imitate, Le Noble likewise insists upon the veracity of his textsand exalts his dialogues as “une Boussole pour les Historiens futurs” (a Compass for future Historians) (Le Cibisme 4–5).[6]Furthermore, as if to signal the imperative to question authority within his satirical enterprise, the epigraph preceding each pamphlet reformulates an element of the Ho­ratian utile dulci principle. Whereas Horace famously defends his own literary practices through the expression “Ridendo dicere verum quid ve­tat” (What forbids telling the truth with a smile) (Satires 1.1.24–25), Le Noble’s epigraph replaces the word “quid” with “nil”: “Ridendo dicere verum/Nil vetat?” (Does nothing forbid telling the truth with a smile?). By transforming Horace’s assertion into a more audacious interrogative, Le Noble emphasizes the fact that one can tell the truth with a smile in any circumstance—that is, even when it is told only inadvertently. As Helen Harrison has argued, Le Noble’s reformulation likewise seems “to point to the lack of control over unauthorized texts [in circulation] or to ask what limits, if any, will be placed on his mockery” (np). In these ways, the pa­ratext to the Pierre de touche politique dialogues not only emphasizes the relative truth-value of historiography, but also underscores the “slippery” nature of satire and the dissemination of such works in late seventeenth-century France and Europe. 

Each dialogue in La Pierre de touche politique adopts a particular po­lemical tone,which, on a first level, attempts to influence public opinion in Europe and France by promoting the French crown’s interests against England, the House of Austria, the papacy, and other members of the Grand Alliance. Indeed, the majority of the Pierre de touche politique dialogues ridicule Louis XIV’s two most significant religious and political rivals: Pope Innocent XI, against whom the French monarch struggled for spiritual authority within his borders (Ott 21), and William of Orange, who ruled as both Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic and King William III of England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689 (Israel 646, 849–852).[7] Throughout the collection, Louis XIV is universally depicted as the victim of Pope Innocent XI’s “pernicious hatred” (Le Cibisme 23) and William III of England’s “consuming ambition” (La Fable 26), a pawn in a “universal political conspiracy” orchestrated by his enemies against him (Le Cibisme3).[8] The pope is treated as a heretic and a false Christian (16) who does not have “un grain de Catholicon dans le cœur” (an ounce of Catholicon in his heart) (26), whereas William of Orange, alternately dubbed “Guillemot” and “Jus d’Orange,” is repeatedly criticized for hav­ing usurped the British crown (Le Festin 12) and for the “absolute authority” with which he governs (La Fable 23). Whether or not the French crown financially endorsed Le Noble’s pasquinades, as some have speculated, it is clear that Louis XIV would have benefited from Le Noble’s humorous and scathing depictions of his political rivals.[9]

At moments, however, the lampoons against Innocent XI converge with criticism of Louis XIV’s own abuses of authority, and the figure of the pope is deployed to criticize forms of absolutism in general. In Le Cibisme (1689), for example,two fictional interlocutors, Pasquin and Marforio, analyze conciliarism—a doctrine that upholds the supremacy of an ecclesiastical council over the pope’s authority in spiritual matters (Örsy 56)—completely rewriting Catholic dogma and critiquing the pa­pacy at its foundations. After arguing that papal infallibility is a falsehood (Le Cibisme 16), Pasquin questions the divine source of pontifical autho­rity in terms that resonate with the universality of a maxim: “il n’est pas croyable que Dieu donne à un seul homme la droiture des décisions, & qu’il la refuse à un nombre innombrable de Pères assemblés en un Concile” (It is not plausible that God gives to only one man fairness in decision-making, & and that he refuses it to an innumerable number of Fathers assembled in a Council) (32). While the praise of conciliarism throughout Le Cibisme would have supported Louis XIV’s struggle with the Holy See, this in fact veils the underlying critique of all forms of gov­ernment that rely on the supremacy of a divinely-appointed leader. By blurring the line the between papal and monarchical authority through the derision of  “infallible” rulers who reign “alone,” Le Noble’s pamphletreads as an accusation against all leaders invoking the sacred origin of their power to command the absolute obedience of their subjects. In these respects, the mockery of papal authority undermines the French king’s own claim to “divine right to rule,” with the universality of the anti-absolutist criticism overshadowing the anti-papal content.

A later passage more closely evokes absolutist theory by ridiculing political structures based upon the primacy of the head of state over the body politic. Perhaps more significantly, this critique of the absolutist model redeploys the very terminology used to denounce Louis XIV in anti-monarchical pamphlets from the same period. In Les Soupirs de la France Esclave (1689), for instance, the anonymous author defends the original “Aristocratic” form of the French government in which the mon­arch would consult his Estates General before all important decisions (95–96),[10] arguing that the king’s sovereignty is lesser thanthat of the assem­bled États: “les Rois ne pouvaient rien sans [les États]; & au contraire...[les États] pouvaient tout sans les Rois” (Kings cannot do any­thing without the Estates; & on the contrary... the Estates can do everything without Kings) (96). In strikingly similar language, Le Noble’s characters uphold the supremacy of an assembled councilin religious matters:

Le Concile assemblé est le véritable Corps entier de l’Église, l’Évêque de Rome n’en est que le Chef, & il est ridicule de prétendre que le Chef, soit lui seul plus que le Corps entier qui comprend tout ensemble & le Chef & les membres: le Pape ne peut être sans l’Église ni hors l’Église, mais l’Église à chaque mutation de Pontificat subsiste sans Pape. (Le Cibisme 33, emphasis added)

The assembled Council is the true Body of the Church, the Bishop of Rome is only its Leader, & it is ridiculous to contend that the Leader, should be himself more than the entire Body which includes both the Leader and the mem­bers: the Pope cannot exist without the Church nor outside of the Church, but the Church subsists without the Pope in every variation of the Pontificate.(Le Cibisme 33, emphasis added)

Here, the denunciation of papal authority masks the implicit criticism of all forms of absolute power, with the satirized object vacillating between the particular (the organization of the Catholic church) and the universal (all absolutist political structures). Far from operating in a unidirectional manner, the propaganda in La Pierre de touche politique is a double-edged sword, lambasting the absolutist tendencies of a specific sovereign while also echoing the condemnation of Louis XIV’s own abuses of power.  

Just as the Church and the State formed a two-sided edifice of power in the ancien régime, Le Noble’s pasquinades take aim at the spiritual domain of the papacy and the temporal realm of monarchy, using satire as a vehicle for political theorization. Even if the dialogical form and satirical nature of the pasquinades resist a straightforward interpretation of the author’s political beliefs, the discussion of socio-political regimes within Le Noble’s texts nevertheless resembles the typological analyses found in early modern political philosophy. In La Fable du Renard (1690), for ex­ample, the allegorical dialogue between the two “puissantes Républiques” of Switzerland and Holland assails William of Orange’s “usurpation” of the British crown and the enslavement of his subjects (8). Indeed,the “fortunes” of the populace may be inherently more unstable in a monarchy because they are vested in and literally subjected to the ever-changing personal inclinations of the king (32–33), but the interlocutors draw a dis­tinction between standard monarchical governments and tyrannical states ruled by a “usurper” who has “no right” to the throne. From the outset of the pamphlet, Switzerland warns Holland of the dangers of William III’s tyrannical impulses, insisting that the Stadtholder would like to reign as king within Dutch borders as well:

Tu ne dois pas douter qu’il ne soit ennemi né de ta li­berté; il ne fait en cela que marcher sur les traces de ses Pères, & comme eux dévoré d’ambition, il n’a d’autres soins n’y d’autre but que d’abolir ton Gouvernement, pour arriver à la Souveraineté absolue de tes Provinces. (26)

You should not doubt that he isthe born enemy of your liberty; in this respect he merely follows in the footsteps of his Forefathers, & like them devoured by ambition, he has neither other cares nor other goal but to abolish your Gov­ernment, in order to arrive at the absolute Sovereignty of your Provinces. (26)

Later, Switzerland’s words pronounce the enslavement of the Dutch to “Tiny Will” as a rhetorical strategy to render its advice more compelling, even as they (incorrectly) predict William III’sultimate fall in England by deploying maxim-like phrases regarding the abuse of authority:   

Toute l’Europe ne te regarde plus que comme l’esclave d’un Tyran qui t’a mise aux fers... mais je suis bien trom­pée si dans peu tu ne vois tomber ce Pygmée qui a marché à pas de Géant à l’Usurpation d’un Trône sur lequel il n’a aucun droit. Plus un homme acquiert d’autorité plus il en abuse, & l’abus que cet Usurpateur fait déjà de celle qu’il s’est donnée sur un peuple fier, volage & impatient, ne peut manquer de le renverser bien tôt de la place qu’il a perfi­dement envahi: Qui habitat in caelis irvadebit & subsannabit, & adhut pussillum, non erit. (44, emphasis in original).[11]

All of Europe now considers you the slave to a Tyrant who has put you in chains… but I am indeed mistaken if in a short time you do not see the fall of this Pygmy who has walked in Giant steps to the Usurpation of a Throne to which he has no right. The more a man acquires authority, the more he abuses it, & the abuse that this Usurper has al­ready committed of the authority that he has taken over aproud,fickle, & impatient people cannot fail to reverse him soon from the place that he perfidiously invaded: He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh & shall have them in deri­sion, & in just a little while, will be no more. (44, emphasis in original)

This humorous critique of “William the Pygmy” functions as a general warning to monarchs who have misused their political clout, thereby playing on the thresholdbetween satire and political theory. Switzerland’s insistence that the Dutch have been “enslaved” by Tiny Will functions as a general warning against kings who have misused their political clout, who have crossed the line from monarchy into tyranny, or worse, into the realm of the despotic.[12]

This ambiguity between monarch, tyrant, and despot occurs elsewhere in the Pierre de touche politique collection, although the distance between William III and Louis XIV is here blurred even further. Throughout Le Festin de Guillemot (1689) and Le Couronnement de Guillemot et de Guillemette (1689), Pasquin and Marforio mock the extravagant baroque coronation ceremony organized by the “tyrant” William of Orange, as well as the paintings he commissioned to commemorate his so-called heroism (Le Couronnement 14) in terms that recallLouis XIV’s own self-aggrandizing propaganda.[13] In claiming that the English have fallen victim to a monarch who has “bankrupted” his nation’s treasury and infringed upon his subjects’ religious beliefs (34–35), the interlocutors warn against the concentration of power in the hand of the monarch and the corre­sponding weakening of parliamentary structures. As Pasquin and Marforio argue, the English—particularly the aristocrats—have been “put to sleep” by the usurper “Tiny Will”:

Pasquin: Toutes les Soupes dont [la Table] était cou­verte, ne consistaient qu’en une infinité de différents déguisements d’un fin Jus de Pavot artificieusement médi­camenté, & très propre pour endormir les Mulots.

Marforio: Dis-les Mylords: car le proverbe est à présent changé, & au lieu de dire Endormir le Mulot, on dit En­dormir le Mylord, pour exprimer qu’on fait ses affaires aux dépens du sot qui se laisse amuser. (Le Festin 26, emphasis in original)


Pasquin: All the Soups covering [the Table], consisted only of an infinity of different disguises of a fine, artifi­cially medicated Poppy Juice, very appropriate to put the Fieldmice to sleep.

Marforio: Call them Mylords: because the proverb is presently changed, & instead of saying To put the Field­mice to sleep, one says To put the Mylord to sleep, to express that one does his business at the expense of the fool who lets himself be amused. (Le Festin 26, emphasis in original)

In these respects, the dialogues within La Pierre de touche politique warn against the total erosion of liberty within states governed by “arbitrary and supertyrannical” rulers in which “duped” subjects are “enslaved” to their tyrannical leaders (Le Couronnement 45).[14]

In the same way that the denunciation of Pope Innocent XI’s unilateral authority recalls similar critiques of Louis XIV’s brand of absolutism in other pamphlets from the period, the mockery of William of Orange’s despotic tendencies is particularly subversive in light of the intellectualclimate of the pasquinades. As Melvin Richter has argued, the term “des­potic monarchy” was coined to condemn Louis XIV’s arbitrary political policies and interference in the religious realm: “After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French Huguenots in Holland and England began to use the term despotique for the polemical purposes of comparing the ab­solutism of Louis XIV to that of the Turkish Grand Seigneur” (18).[15]Les Soupirs de la France Esclave, for one,is unequivocal in its condemnation of the state’s undue meddling in religious affairs. After lamenting the bel­licose French monarch’s capacity to send his subjects to death on a battlefield, the author summarizes the nefarious effects of the “monster” of “Absolute Power” (10) in the following manner:

Toutes ces preuves font voir que la Puissance Despoti­que & Arbitraire du Gouvernement de France s’étend sans réserve & sur nos biens & sur nos vies. Je ne vois donc plus rien qui soit à couvert. Dirons-nous qu’au moins la cons­cience & la Religion sont à Dieu & à nous?  Point du tout... Le Roi est maître non seulement de la vie & des biens, mais aussi de l’extérieur de la Religion: tellement qu’il n’est permis à personne de faire profession d’aucune Religion que de celle qu’il plaît au Roi. (43–44, emphasis in origi­nal)

All of these proofs make it clear that the Despotic & Arbitrary Power of the French Government sprawls without reserve over our goods and our lives. I do not therefore see anything that is safe. Will we say that freedom of con­science and Religion existsbetween ourselves and God?  Not at all... The King is master over not only our life and goods, but also over the exterior manifestations of Relig­ion: such that it is not permitted to anyone to profess any Religion other than the one that pleases the King. (43–44, emphasis in original)

Unlike Les Soupirs and other political pamphlets circulating at the same historical moment in which Louis XIV’s reckless ambition is unequivo­cally denounced,[16]however, Eustache Le Noble’s pasquinades once again straddle the line between support and criticism of the French absolute mo­narchy. In this respect, if one can argue that the critique of William III simply mobilizes a late seventeenth-century rhetorical trope to denounce the abuses of monarchical authority, the interest of Le Noble’s particular brand of subversion stems from the double readability of his texts. By evoking the figure of a sovereign who considers the property of his sub­jects “[ses] Biens...propres” (Le Couronnement 41), who “bankrupts” his nation’s “Religion” and “Riches” (34–35), and whose extravagant diver­tissements aim to “put to sleep” the aristocracy, the Pierre de touche politique pamphlets recall criticisms of Louis XIV’s own arbitrary poli­cies, from his mismanagement of the State’s finances, to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, to his excessive fêtes at Versailles. While the rhetori­cal force of Pasquin and Marforio’s mockery of the English king’s despotic qualities results from the paronymic relationship between Wil­liam and his alleged political mantra (“Iwil”) (33), the literary and political significance of the pasquinades as a whole derives from the complexity of their satirical system. Even as they denounce the French monarch’s rivals, Le Noble’s dialogues exploit the instability between the particular satiri­zed object and the general satirical content, vacillating between surface-level ridicule and the deeper anti-monarchical undertones. Profiting from the fact that the king’s immediate frame of reference were his own politi­cal vendettas, Le Noble was able to draw the royal censors’ attention away from the salient denunciation of French absolutism implied in his critique of various late seventeenth-century political figures. 

III. Prescriptive Politics: From the Denunciation of Absolutism to the Theorization of Republicanism:

In addition to condemning the abuses of absolutism, the Pierre de touche politique pamphletsalso examine the viability of non-monarchical forms of political organizations in a subversive manner. Whereas the for­mer type of critique manipulates the boundaries between satirized object and satirical content, the same mechanism is elsewhere applied to slightly different ends. Throughout La Fable du Renard, for instance, Louis XIV is consistently lauded as an ideal diplomatic protector, a “bridle” against the territorial ambitions of William III (18). According to Switzerland, Hol­land has been enslaved to the absolute monarch Guillemot (30), an untenable situation that can only be remedied by purging itself of the poi­sonous “Orange juice” it had swallowed (32) and by forging an alliance with France (10, 13–15, 18, 21, 23, 36). In this way, the text seemingly reverses the attacks on Louis XIV’s ambitions for a “universal monarchy” and attempts to accuse other European sovereigns of that very aim (22).[17]  

Yet the conversation shifts in a significant manner towards the end of this dialogue, with the general discussion of diplomacy turning towards a comparative analysis of monarchies and republics. After claiming that the French are both naturally predisposed and culturally conditioned to a form of submission that is incompatible within a republic (32–33),[18] Switzer­land maintains that Holland’s most serious political mistake was allowing French exiles into its borders:

Ainsi ces serpents que tu as retirés et réchauffés dans ton sein, ont été des fléaux aussi funestes à ta liberté, qu’ils ont été utiles au Prince d’Orange pour la consommation de ses pratiques ambitieuses. Et si tu pouvais lire à nue dans tous les replis du coeur de ces réfugiés, tu verrais qu’il n’y en a pas un seul qui ne désire avec une passion violente de voir ton État Républicain détruit, et le Prince d’Orange souverain absolu de tes Provinces. (33–34)

Thus these serpents that you have secluded and warmed in your bosom, have been scourges as fatal to your freedom as they were helpful to the Prince of Orange for the con­summation of his ambitious practices. And if you could see into the deepest recesses of these refugees’ hearts, you would see that there is not one of them who does not desire with a violent passion to see your Republican State de­stroyed, and the Prince of Orange absolute sovereign of your Provinces. (33–34)

Given that a republic’s “first” and “unique” goal should be the preserva­tion of its freedom at any cost (9), the only “cure” to Holland’s enslavement to “Roi Guillemot” is to reclaim its lost liberty by expelling its “king” (45–46).[19]The use of a medical lexicon in these passages is significant (poison, remède, émétique, vomitif, intestins, médecin, purger, humeurs) (32), as it both underscores the severity of the disease (enslave­ment to an absolute monarch) as well as the urgent need for its remedy (purging the monarch). 

In this respect, the interpolated fable allegorizing William’s ruse of the Dutch only heightens the subversive nature of this pamphlet. Although it conceals the attack within a second narrative layer, the fact that Switzer­land gives the “key” to unlock the fable’s meaning to Holland before its told—(“tu as la clef de cette Fable avant que je te la dise”) (you have the key to this Fable before I tell it to you) (37)—encourages the reader to appreciate the parallels between the presentation of William as “renard rusé” and similar representations of Louis XIV as “renard rusé” in inter­polated fables in other pamphlets from the same period.[20] More significantly, the inscription of the fable frames the need for revolt as a moral and even religious imperative, as seen in the following citation:

Ne sais-tu pas le vieux proverbe, Aide-toi & Dieu t’aidera: Est-il possible qu’entre tant de bons Républicains qui gémissent en secret de l’état auquel ils te voient réduit, pas un seul n’ait le courage d’animer les autres à rompre d’indignes liens. Ah brutes Brebis, esclaves d’un Renard, République réduite à la seule qualité de Trésorière de Guillemot, renvoie les Léopards dans leurs tanières, rap­pelles tes Dogues, & qu’une fois ils montrent les dents à ce ruse Renard. Laisse-le parmi ses Léopards démêler sa fu­sée, & rends-toi cette liberté si précieuse pour laquelle tu as répandu tant de sang, consommé tant d’armées, & souffert tant de travaux. (45, emphasis in original) 

Do you not know the old proverb, Help thyself & God will help thee: Is it possible that among so many good Re­publicans who secretly lament the state to which they see you reduced, not one has the courage to motivate others to break unworthy ties. Oh crude Sheep, slaves of a Fox, Re­public reduced to the sole occupation of Tiny Willy’s Treasurer, send back the Leopards to their dens, bring back your Mastiffs, and for once may they show their teeth to this cunning Fox. Leave him among his Leopards to clear up his business, & take back this precious freedom for which you have shed so much blood, consumed so many armies, & suffered so much hardship. (45, emphasis in original)

In positing an alternative to monarchyin the form of a lesson, this pasqui­nade indeed seems to shift from the satirical mode to a prescriptive call to arms— a rhetorical move signaled within the text not only by the accu­mulation of imperatives (renvoie, rappelles, rends-toi), but also by Holland’s “shocked” reaction to the moral: “Quoique ton discours m’ait un peu choquée, je ferai néanmoins de sérieuses réflexions sur tout ce que tu m’as dit” (Although your speech shocked me a bit, I will nevertheless reflect seriously about everything that you told me) (45–46). If the majo­rity of the satire in La Pierre de touche politique functions due to the generalizability of the criticism of particular political leaders, it is through the glorification of republicanism that the texts are most strikingly trans­gressive. What is more, in engendering both shock and “serious reflections,” Le Noble’s pasquinades point to late seventeenth-century pamphlet literature’ssignificance as discursive spaces for critical in­quiry—spaces in which readers are invited, and indeed encouraged, to dialogue with the text to move beyond “la superficie des choses” to arrive at “le fond essentiel” (La Fable 33). 

IV. Conclusion(s): The Poetics and the Politics of Dissimulation under Louis XIV

Despite its inherent instability, the satirical mode is often described through the use of an archery lexicon: a given text “takes aim” at a given “target” by ridiculing the satirized object. According to this logic, late seventeenth-century Dutch and English pamphleteers “targeted” Louis XIV’s despotic aspirations for a universal monarchy, a charge against which the French crown retaliated by launching its own publicity war de­nouncing the tyranny of his political enemies. If this interpretation is conceptually useful, it masks the ways in which satire can operate in a more elastic manner, with the ridicule figuratively “ricocheting” between and among several disparate targets.  Indeed, as we have seen through our analysis of Eustache Le Noble’s La Pierre de touche politique, it is per­haps this complexity that lends the satirical mode to evasively dodge the bullet of censorship. Unlike other examples of political pamphlets circu­lating at the turn of the eighteenth century, the pasquinades manipulate the divergent frames of reference of their readers, appealing effectively to two ideologically opposed audiences: the royal censors, thepasquinade’s im­mediate readers, and the general reading public.[21] As Pasquin suggests in Le Festin de Guillemot (1689),the question of point-of-view is para­mount: “Par-là tu connaîtras facilement qu’il est bien aisé de se tromper, & de prendre des vessies pour des lanternes lorsqu’on a la vue mauvaise, & qu’on se sert de Lunettes fausses” (By this you will easily understand that is very easy to make mistakes, & to get the wool pulled over one’s eyes, when one has poor vision & uses false Glasses)(43–44). By exploit­ing precisely the monarchy’s “poor sight” and “false glasses,” Le Noble managed to publish texts that denounce absolutism and laud the emanci­patory potential of republics. It is perhaps this utility that Le Noble claims his texts will hold for “les Historiens futurs” in the preface to Le Cibisme.

In addition to their political and historical importance as examples of early modern propaganda and proto-journalistic rapportages, however, the pasquinades’ literary features are equally critical. Despite their discursive complexity, we have seen that the pamphlets often announce the narrative game that they are playing, inscribing the key to their political significance into the fabric of the text. In the same way that the aforementioned evoca­tion of “skewed vision” and “surface-level” reading renders the dialogues’ subversive contents more easily decipherable, these metaleptic moments throughout the Pierre de touche politique collection clarify their textual construction as they contribute to their literary complexity. Holland’s re­sponse to Switzerland’s wisdom in La Fable du Renard is again revelatory. At the close of the pamphlet, Holland summarizes the conse­quence of his dialogue with Switzerland in terms that recapitulate the general interest of the dialogic function in the pasquinades: “Tu m’ouvres les yeux sur des choses auxquelles je n’aurais jamais pensé, et cependant je m’aperçois bien de la vérité de ton raisonnement” (You are opening my eyes to things about which I never would have thought, and yet I clearly perceive the truth in your reasoning)(34–35). Indeed, the relevance of thePierre de touche politique pamphlets at the dawn of the French Enlight­enment resides in this incessant vacillation between interlocutor and reader, between historical fact and authorial invention, and between mon­archical praise and monarchical denunciation. Even as they playfully “banter” about current events (La Bibliothèque 3), The Political Touch­stone pamphlets theorize republicanism and encourage readers to question blind submission to authority, employing an early enlightenment-style reader manipulation that fosters critical inquiry.  Rather than dismissing these texts as propaganda spreading “lies” to a passive, gullible audience, I would like to suggest they be considered as active in constructing new frameworks for debates (Onnekink 150).[22] In addition to “shocking” read­ers, the Pierre de touche politique dialogues analyze the distinctions between monarchy and despotism, between traditional and“absolute mon­archies, and between monarchies and republics. They invite the reader into a discursive space of critical inquiry even as they attempt to construct “new interpretative frameworks” for that space. They function collectively as ekphrastic machines, transporting readers into the chaos of the past and resurrecting history before our own eyes. Most importantly, they show us that Enlightenment, cognitive or cultural, does not emerge from a vacuum, but surfaces slowly as a product of dialogic exchange. Le Noble’s pasqui­nades merit further consideration by contemporary scholars precisely because, as Pasquin puts it, whoever dislikes these “harmless divertisse­ments” is not a “Français,” but a “franc-sot” (Le Festin 43–44).  

 New York University



Works Cited

Bak, János M., ed. Coronations: Medieval and Early Modern Monarchic Ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Bodin, Jean. Les six livres de la république. Geneva: C. Le Jung, 1577.

Bonnet, Pierre, ed. Littérature de contestation : pamphlets et polémiques du règne de Louis XIV aux Lumières. Paris : Editions le Manuscrit, 2011.

Cherbuliez, Juliette. “The Outlaw’s Itinerary: Identity and Circulation in Eustache Le Noble’s La Fausse Comtesse d’Isamberg.” The French Review 73.3 (Feb 2000): 475–485.

Collinet, Jean-Piere, Philippe Hourcade, and François Moureau. “Eustache Le Noble.”Dictionnaire des Journalistes, 1600–1789. Ed. Jean Sgard. Vol. 2. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1999. 625–628.

Funck-Brentano, Franz. Les Lettres de cachet à Paris: Étude suivie d’une liste des prisonniers de la Bastille (1659–1789). Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1903.

Godenne, René. Préface. Ildegerte, reyne de Norvège : ou L’amour magnanime. By Eustache Le Noble. Genève : Skatline Reprints, 1980. I–XVIII.

“Historical Bibliography: Eustache Le Noble.” Notes and Queries: A Medium for Intercommunication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc. Vol 5. London: George Bell, 1852. 52–54.

Harrison, Helen L. “The Follies of Notre Bon Homme, or How to Lampoon a Hope while Praising the Eldest Son of the Church: the 1688 and 1689 Pasquinades of Eustache Le Noble.”  College of William and Mary. Williamsburg, Va. 28 Oct. 2004. Conference Paper.

Horace. Satires, Book 1. Ed. Emily Gowers. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge UP, 2012.

Hourcade, Philippe. Entre pic et rétif: Eustache Le Noble (1643–1711). Paris: Amateurs de livres, 1988.

Israel, Jonathan I. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Klaits, Joseph. Printed propaganda under Louis XIV: absolute monarchy and public opinion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Koebner, Richard. “Despot and Despotism: Vicissitudes of a Political Term.”  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 14 (1951): 275–302.

Le Noble, Eustache. La Bibliothèque du roi Guillemot : sixième dialogue. London: Chez Jean Benn, 1690.

———. La Chambre des comptes d’Innocent XI : dialogue entre Saint-Pierre & le Pape à la porte du paradis. Rome: Chez Francophile Aletophile, 1689.

———. La Diète d'Ausbourg ou La guerre de l’aigle et du coq : huitième dialogue. Vienna: Chez Peter Hansgood, 1690.

———. La Fable du renard : septième dialogue, entre la Suisse et la Hollande. Leyde : Chez William Newking, 1690.

———. Le Cibisme : Entre Pasquin & Marforio, sur les Affaires des Temps. Rome: Chez Francophile Alethophile, 1691.

———. Le Couronnement de Guillemot et de Guillemette : troisième dialogue entre Pasquin & Marforio sur les affaires du temps ; avec le sermon du grand Docteur Burnet. London : Chez Jean Benn, 1689.

———. Le Festin de Guillemot : quatrième dialogue de Pasquin & de Marforio. London : Chez Jean Benn, 1689.

Les soupirs de la France esclave qui aspire après la liberté. N.p.: n.p., 1689.

Onnekink, David. “The Revolution in Dutch Foreign Policy (1688).”  Pamphlets and Politics in the Dutch Republic. Ed. Femke Deen, David Onnekink and Michael Reinders. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 143–172.

Mangeot, Stéphane. “Eustache Le Noble, procureur général au parlement de Metz (1672–1682): Aventurier et homme de lettres.” Mémoires de l’Académie nationale de Metz.Vol. 15. 55–83. Metz: Editions le Lorrain, 1934.

Martin, Henri-Jean. Livre, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVII siècle (1598–1701). Vol. 2.Genève: Droz, 1969.

Michaud, Joseph F. and Louis G. Michaud. “Eustache LeNoble.” Biographie universelle, ancienne et moderne, ou Histoire par ordre alphabétique de la vie publique et privée de tous les homes qui se sont fait remarquer par leurs écrits, leurs actions, leurs talents, leurs vertus ou leurs crimes: ouvrage entièrement neuf. Vol. 24. Paris : Michaud frères, 1811–1862. 85 vols. 93–95.

Örsy, L.M. “Conciliarism: Theological Aspect.”  New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Ed. Marthaler, et al. Vol. 4.New York: Thomas Gale, 2003. 15 Vols.

Ott, Michael. “Pope Innocent XI.”  Catholic Encyclopedia. Ed. Herbermann, et al. Vol. 8.New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1910. 15 Vols.

“Pasquin.” Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc. Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Spring 2011 Edition). Ed. Robert Morrissey. http://encyclopedie.uchicago.edu/. Web.

“Pasquinade.”  Dictionnaire universel, contenant généralement tous les mots françois tant vieux que modernes, et les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts. By Antoine Furetière. LaHaye et Rotterdam : A. & R. Leers,1690.

Ravaisson, François. Archives de la Bastille: Documents inédits recueillis et publiés. Vol. 8. Paris: A. Durand et Pedone-Lauriel, 1876.

Reynie, Gabriel Nicolas de la. “Lettre du 5 août 1694.” Bibliothèque nationale, Papiers Harlay, 679.

Richter, Melvin. “Despotism.”  Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Ed. Philip Wiener. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

Rosen, Ralph M. Making Mockery: The Poetics of Ancient Satire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Seifert, Lewis C. Fairy Tales, Sexuality, and Gender in France, 1690–1715: nostalgic utopias. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Smith, Jay M. Nobility Reimagined: The Patriotic Nation in Eighteenth-Century France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. Print.

Tierney, B. “Conciliarism: History of.”  New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Ed. Marthaler, et al. Vol. 4.New York: Thomas Gale, 2003. 15 Vols.

[1] Given Le Noble’s reputation, it is unclear how this relationship was forged. The publication of Charenton, ou l’Hérésie détruite (1686), which praised the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, may have earned Le Noble the graces of Madame de Maintenon, a relationship that he only solidified by dedicating his Traduction nouvelle en vers des Pseaumes de David to her in 1692 (Hourcade 52). Le Noble may have benefited from other protectors in high places, such as French magistrate Toussaint Rose, reportedly a friend of Le Noble’s father, as well as the lieutenant-general of police Marc-René de Voyer de Paulmy d’Argenson, who provided a small weekly allowance to Le Noble at the end of his life (116). Some have suggested that Le Noble was a distant relative of Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Charles Colbert de Croissy. However, the fact remains that the degree of his protection was inconsistent, as some of his texts were authorized while others condemned or seized. See Hourcade (115–120) for several hypotheses regarding these “Approbations et protections masquées.” 

[2]He was imprisoned at three different junctures: in the Bastille and For-l’Évêque prisons from 1683–1684 for having forged signatures to swindle his creditors; in the Châtelet and the Conciergerie prisons from 1690–1695 for having falsified documentation pertaining to the inheritance of territories; and in the Conciergerie from 1703–1704 for adultery (Hourcade 45–66; Godenne VIII; Funck-Brentano 73; Ravaisson 246–247). Le Noble escaped from prison in 1695 and lived in hiding with his mistress, Marie-Gabrielle Perreau, until their capture in 1697. Although he had been banished in 1693—a sentence which was reaffirmed in 1697—Le Noble was nevertheless allowed to live discreetly in Paris (Hourcade 60). My study relies heavily on Philippe Hourcade’s monograph Entre pic et rétif : Eustache Le Noble (1643–1711), to date the only comprehensive critical study of Le Noble’s oeuvre. Unless otherwise noted, all biographical references are taken from Hourcade’s work.

[3] Although best known as the author of the pasquinades, Le Noble published in nearly every literary genre, penning historical novellas, psalm-paraphrases, astrological treatises, theatre, fairy tales, poetry, treatises on religious doctrine, and fables. His Oeuvres complètes appeared in 19 volumes between 1718 and 1726, and his works were translated into English, German, and Italian. See Hourcade (150–152) for a chronological bibliography of Le Noble’s works.

[4]Le Noble’s works have typically been featured within general studies (see Seifert) and have usually attracted attention on ideological grounds (see Martin). Recent scholarship, however, has emphasized both the literary interest of his novels as well as their potential influence on eighteenth-century works such as Manon Lescaut (see Cherbuliez). Philippe Hourcade’s exhaustive study draws upon meticulous archival research, but it is first and foremost a work of literary history that overlooks the subversive political content of Le Noble’s pasquinades.

[5]Le Noble published five collections of pasquinades, the titles of which are listed below: La Pierre de touche politique ou dialogues sur les affaires du temps (29 dialogues; 1688–1691), La Fable du rossignol et du coucou (1 dialogue; 1692), Les Travaux d’Hercule (21 dialogues; 1693–1694), L’Esprit d’Esope (4 dialogues; 1694), and Nouveaux Entretiens politiques (87 dialogues; 1702–1709). While his name did not appear on the manuscripts of the pasquinades, Le Noble was presumed to have been their author by his contemporaries and his engraving appeared with these works.


[6] Hourcade has noted that Le Noble’s ambition to write “un Essai Historique” (Le Cibisme 4) belies an attempt to compete with the periodical Le Mercure historique et politique (227).

[7]As Michael Ott writes, “The whole pontificate of Innocent XI is marked by a continuous struggle with the absolutism of King Louis XIV of France” (21). In 1687, Louis XIV seized papal territory, imprisoned the papal nuncio, and threatened to separate France from the Roman Catholic Church in response to papal decisions with which he disagreed, prompting his excommunication by the pope (Ott 21–22).

William III, Prince of Orange became the Stadtholder, or provincial governor, of the provinces of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht in 1672. Preoccupied with strengthening the power of the United Provinces against France, which had invaded the Dutch Republic in 1672, William of Orange aspired to the British crown to establish “an anti-French, and anti-Catholic, parliamentary monarchy” (Israel 849). Dutch forces invaded England in November 1688, and William deposed his uncle and father-in-law, James II, in December of the same year, officially becoming joint sovereign of England, Scotland, and Ireland with his wife Mary II in February 1689 (849–852).

[8]Each pasquinade was published with its own clever, original title. Le Noble explains the rationale behind his first pamphlet’s title in these terms: “[je l’ai] nommé Cibisme, parce que le Népotisme ayant été proscrit sous le Pontificat d’Innocent XI le Cardinal Cibo y a tenu la place de neveu & de premier ministre” ([I named it] Cibisme because Nepotism having been proscribed under the Pontificate of Innocent XI Cardinal Cibo assumed the rank of nephew and prime minister) (Cibisme 4). The pope’s decision to side with William of Orange (a Protestant) in the War of the Grand Alliance is most notably denounced in La Chambre des comptes d’Innocent XI, in which Innocent XI must answer to Saint Peter for his crimes against the Church.

[9]Hourcade has suggested that the controversial nature of Le Noble’s political dialogues explains their complicated publication history, as well as the government’s ambiguous role in approving them, if only tacitly. Some government officials saw in the pasquinades an opportunity to garner support for State policy, while others feared explicitly approving the dialogues’ ridicule of European leaders. On several occasions the approval of the pasquinades was superficially revoked only to be promptly reinstated by royal authority (Hourcade 108–112). In Livre, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVIIe siècle, Henri-Jean Martin maintains that the French crown clandestinely supported Le Noble’s pasquinades to increase support for the war against the League of Augsburg (669–670; 899–900). Others have speculated that Le Noble was hired as a propagandist by British Jacobites, those who sought the restoration of James II. In the January 1852 edition of the scholarly journal “Notes and Queries,” for instance, the anonymous author argues that the deposed King of England James II may have partially financed Le Noble’s Pierre de touche dialogues in order to turn public opinion against William of Orange, who had forced his abdication (5: 52–54). See also Harrison’s unpublished conference paper “The Follies of Notre Bon Homme,” which I have listed in the Works Cited.

[10]The fifteen “mémoires” composing Les Soupirs de la France esclave, qui aspire après la liberté were originally published anonymously, but have been attributed to Pierre Jurieu and Michel Le Vassor. Antony McKenna has questioned both attributions in a chapter published within Pierre Bonnet’s edited volume Littérature de contestation : pamphlets et polémiques du règne de Louis XIV aux Lumières (2011).

[11]The Latin citation combines Psalms 2:4 and 36:10 from the Bible.

[12]The sixteenth-century religious wars produced a rich body of pamphlets that accuse the monarchy of tyranny in the aftermath of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos: or, concerning the legitimate power of a prince over the people, and of the people over a prince (1579), for instance, charges the French crown with having degenerated into tyranny and contends that subjects have the right to resist a king who disobeys the laws of God— arguments that would resurge in the second half of the seventeenth century after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. My dissertation focuses on anti-monarchical pamphlet literature from the late seventeenth century, but highlights the extent to which these works draw on tropes from previous generations of libelles and indeed increase their rhetorical force through the imitation of lieux communs deployed in preceding texts.

[13] In Coronations: Medieval and Early Modern Monarchic Ritual, Bak acknowledges William III’s effective use of spectacle to strengthen his political authority: “Macaulay wrote ‘If pageantry is to be of any use in politics, it is of use as a means of striking the imagination of the multitude.’ The Stuarts never grasped this essential principle of modern politics, but their successor did: William III set out to dazzle the citizens of London with a magnificent and carefully planned progress in order to enhance his shaky claims to the throne” (225). For more on this topic, see Lois G. Schwoerer ‘The Glorious Revolution as Spectacle: A New Perspective’ in England’s Rise to Greatness, 1660–1763 ed. Stephen B. Baxter (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983) 109–149; and ‘Propaganda in the Revolution of 1688–89’ The American Historical Review 82 (1977): 843–874.

[14]La Pierre de touche politique dialogues differ, however from the works of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century political theorists, which separately analyze tyrannical, traditional, and despotic monarchies. For example, Jean Bodin separately treats tyrannical, royal, and despotic monarchies in his Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576). Although the semantic equivalence of tyranny and despotism in Le Noble’s political dialogues differs from Bodin’s treatment of despotism within the specific context of conquered territories, it remains that the pasquinades often consider the subtleties of different forms of government in the manner of political theory.

[15]The semantic resonances of the word “despotic” have been well documented by historians. Initially deployed in France to criticize the perceived threat posed by the concentration of the crown’s political power at the time of the Fronde, the term “despotic” assumed an even more pejorative connotation by the final years of the seventeenth century, evoking a system once associated with the Turks in which subjects of an absolute monarch were rendered slaves to a despot through their dependence on the impulses of the self-interested monarch (Koebner 299; Smith 28–29). Koebner has argued that this criticism reached a high point during the late 1680s, the period during which Le Noble was drafting his Pierre de touche politique pamphlets: “Louis by the onslaught on the Palatinate had opened his most high-handed war in the winter 1688–89. This war was certain to expose France to the enmity of all Europe; it was certain to jeopardize the economic recovery of the country, already made precarious by the exodus of so many Huguenots. Such national dangers were, it appeared, incurred only to satisfy the boundless personal ambition of the king” (297).

[16]For further information on libels written against Louis XIV, see Van Malssen’s seminal study Louis XIV d'après les pamphlets répandus en Hollande (A. Nizet & M. Bastard 1936) or Schillinger’s more recent monograph Les Pamphlétaires allemands et la France de Louis XIV (Peter Lang 1999). Hans Bots’s article “L'écho de la Révocation de l’Edit de Nantes dans les Provinces Unies à travers les gazettes et les pamphlets” analyzes in particular the pamphlets written in the aftermath of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The collection Espaces de la controverse au seuil des Lumières (1680–1715), published in 2010, explores the polemical battles incited in the theological, political, literary, and scientific domains in Europe during the “crise de la conscience européenne.”  Clandestine publications and pamphlet literature were the focal point of a 2009 colloquium in Tours, France, the contributions of which were published under the title Littérature de contestation: Pamphlets et polémiques du règne de Louis XIV aux Lumières. My dissertation will consider in detail the fascinating complexity of the intertextual relationships between Eustache Le Noble’s pasquinades and contemporary political pamphlets.


[17]See Burnard’s “Les pamphlets contre la politique belliciste de Louis XIV” for a succinct analysis of pamphlets denouncing Louis XIV’s territorial ambitions.  

[18]The notion that the exiled French refugees were born with a “proposition naturelle à l’État Monarchique” (natural inclination for the Monarchical State) (33) is also related to other passages which draw on the Aristotelian notion, later developed by Bodin, that the form of government corresponds to a country’s natural geography (8–9).

[19]In a similar fashion, critics of Louis XIV’s absolutism insisted on the fact that the French monarchy was elective in order to justify the people’s right to depose the king. See Les Soupirs de la France esclave, especially the Sixth Memoir (79–94): “Il est indubitable que ceux qui pouvoir d’élire, ont aussi celui de déposer” (It is irrefutable that those who have the power to elect also have the power to depose) (84).

[20]See especially the anonymous publication L’Esprit de la France et les maximes de Louis XIV découvertes à l’Europe (Cologne: Pierre Marteau, 1688).

[21]Further research is needed to hypothesize about the precise readers of the pasquinades. As previously mentioned, Klaits insists upon the “wide readership” of Le Noble’s pamphlets (146), but their publication history complicates these questions of circulation.  

Interestingly, there are several intratextual references to the translation and censorship of the Pierre de touche politique dialogues. In La Fable du renard, for instance, Holland states: “Si je savais qui est l’impertinent qui s’amuse à me traiter de la sorte, je m’en plaindrais à mon Statoûder, qui par Arrêt de son Parlement le ferait pilorier comme on a fait le Chapelain de l’Evêque de Durham pour avoir traduit en Anglais cette misérable pièce intitulé le Couronnement de Guillemot, où le Sermon du saint homme & bon Apôtre le Docteur Burnet est si sottement tourné en ridicule” (If I knew the impertinent one who amuses himself by treating me this way, I would complain about it to my Stadtholder, who by Arrest of his Parlement would have it pilloried like one did the Bishop of Durham’s Chaplain for having translated into English this pathetic piece entitled the Coronation of Tiny Will, where the Sermon of the saintly man and good Apostle the Doctor Burnet is so foolishly derided) (42, emphasis added). Likewise, the exchange between Marforio and Pasquin at the close of Le Festin de Guillemot references the censorship of the pasquinades.

[22]Here, Onnekink draws upon Sheryl Tuttle Ross’s analysis of propaganda as “epistemically defective,” in that its message cannot be authoritatively verified or refuted, in order to comment upon the early modern Dutch pamphlet tradition (150).  

As reflected in my Works Cited, there is a great deal of recent historical scholarship on the role of pamphlets in spreading political and religious heterodoxy in France and in a larger European context.

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Pringy’s Les Differens caracteres des femmes: The Difficult Case of Female Salvation

Article Citation: 
XV, 1 (2013): 46–71
Karen Santos Da Silva
Article Text: 

Printable PDF of Santos Da Silva_46_71


In 2002, an excerpt from the fifth and sixth chapters of Jeanne-Michelle de Pringy’s 1694 Les Differens caracteres des femmes du siècle was included in a collection of feminist texts by women writers of the sev­enteenth century. This inclusion aligns her with authors who were outspoken—at times subversively so—about the social reality women faced, despite the fact that Pringy’s position is far less progressive than that of her contemporaries. The reasoning justifying Pringy’s presence in the anthology, according to the anthology’s editor Colette Winn, is that Pringy’s is a subtle but radical form of feminism: “Particulièrement éclairante est encore la déclaration qui suit. Mme de Pringy, comme G. Suchon, a l’air de s’accommoder des règles en vigueur, des limites impar­ties à la femme, mais sous l’approbation, l’ombre de la révolte se profile déjà” (Winn 17).[1]Beneath Pringy’s ostensible instruction to behave within the norm, Winn argues, lie the seeds of a call for women to find their emancipation in their own self-empowerment. Such a reading is certainly warranted in the sense that any text championing women’s rights would have been likely to face criticism and rebuke, and not just from those on the anti side of the Querelle des femmes. Pringy’s proto-feminism, like that of her contemporaries, would have had to be indirect and insinuate emancipation without ruffling feathers, justifying a kind of Straussian in­terpretation of her professed compliance regarding the weakness and moral fragility of women as a mask behind which an actual agenda of fe­male emancipation could be detected by a discerning reader.

Could Mme de Pringy have had such readers in mind? A readership on the lookout for the silhouette of revolt against a backdrop of deference for the doxa? It may be that such an optimistic reading would induce, if not a certain amount of teleological revisionism, at the very least a simplifica­tion of the debate surrounding women’s place, rights and emancipation in seventeenth century France. I propose a more modest goal: to understand the meaning and import of the Caracteres given its complex integration of moralist, theological, and feminist influences. What does this treatise on the various vices of women reveal about the genre of proto-feminist lit­erature at the end of the seventeenth century, and how are we to interpret the fraught path to salvation that Pringy carves out for women?[2] Which of its various complexities and contradictions result from esthetic and phi­losophical concerns exerted onto the text from the literary landscape out of which it emerged, and which are internal tensions that require resolution on the part of the reader? Finally, what can we learn about the fashioning or conceptualization of female interiority, of the female soul, this emerg­ing fecund realm that would become the central topoi of sentimental fiction in the next century?


Jeanne-Michelle de Pringy’s Differens caracteres des femmes, fol­lowed in the same volume by La Description de l’amour propre, was first anonymously published in 1694.[3] Through her first publication, the public was already familiar with Mme de Pringy’s panegyric discourses lauding the military prowess of the King. The attribution of many of her works remains problematic due to the scarcity of biographical information. Liter­ary records indicate that after her Caracteres she wrote a half-dozen treatises and religious texts, the novel Junie, ou les sentimens romains, and finally the text which accounts for the majority of secondary references to Pringy in academic scholarship, her biography of famed Jesuit preacher Louis Bourdaloue: La Vie du père Bourdaloue.[4]

The year 2002 may have seen the re-emergence of Pringy on the aca­demic landscape, but with the exception of Venesoen’s critical edition and Pringy’s inclusion in Colette Winn’s anthology, as far as I can tell, little attention has been given to the Caracteres. This is probably due to a vari­ety of reasons, including the familiar marginalization of texts for and about women in the processes of canonization. This was also in part due to timing. The Caracteres, whose generic characteristics identify it as in large part a moralist text, was published at the end of the century, well after the majority of moralist productions of the Grand Siècle: twenty-four years after the posthumous publication of Pascal’s Pensées, sixteen years after the definitive edition of La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes as well as Ma­dame de Sablé’s Maximes, a decade after the bulk of Saint-Evremond’s literary activity, and six years after La Bruyère’s Les Caracteres ou les moeurs de ce siècle, the apogee of the moralist “genre.”[5]

Moralist literature—particularly in the 1670s and 1680s—was timely, tied to oral Salon culture and to high society’s definitions of honnêteté, politesse, and galanterie. Literary activity in this milieu was intimately linked to repartee and rhetorical dazzling. Pringy herself was critical and suspicious of the use of eloquence and wit, and despite the strong moralist tone of her work, the esthetic central to moralist literature was at odds with Pringy’s didactic ends, which were to favor contemplation and retreat over seduction and imitation. In short, she participated too late in a genre many of whose worldly concerns, moreover, she rejected. This not only detracts from the potential “modernity” of her work,[6] but also makes her text diffi­cult to classify and thus difficult to compare to a particular literary tradition. However, these two difficulties are what make Pringy’s text a rich object of study. First because, as I will show, it can be aligned with a particular cluster of other proto-feminist works with which it shares salient characteristics. Secondly, and as scholars have increasingly been showing, focusing on a text’s “modernity” or obvious legacy is itself an act of mar­ginalization that does a disservice to a more accurate and true understanding of its import.

A Double Influence

That Les Differens caracteres des femmes du siècle was re-edited five years after its original publication points to a certain level of popular ap­peal, yet little is known about Pringy’s links to other authors or artistic milieus, and less even about the text’s reception.[7] Her name appears most often in the pages of the monthly French gazette, Le Mercure galant, which announced both the text’s initial publication in 1693 and again its second edition a few months prior to publication. If nothing can defini­tively be asserted regarding Pringy’s readership, we can gather, from the fact that theMercure was instrumental in disseminating (some might say advertising) and thus determining trends and fashions, that Pringy enjoyed some attention for her works. Though we may never know the extent to which the Caracteres was given to young girls with the intent of correct­ing or preventing these vices, Pringy’s treatise is unique in comparison to most contemporaneous moral analyses of women by women because of its ostensible pedagogical goal. Whereas moral observations were customar­ily embedded in a variety of literary forms by Mme de Sablé, Mme de Lafayette, Mme de Villedieu, or Madame de Scudéry, moral prescription is the Caracteres’ unique goal and unifying principle. This twelve-part text, composed of six vices and six corrective virtues, was written before there was any substantial body of literature about women’s education (be it moral or otherwise) that was also directly addressed to them.

Pringy’s Caracteres is divided into two distinct but interweaving parts: six vices in the form of portraits of women who embody them, followed respectively by a description of each vice’s corresponding virtue. The first character to be derided is that of coquettes (les coquettes) and it is fol­lowed by a praise of modesty (la modestie). Next, Pringy criticizes zealots (les bigotes), after which she describes true piety (la piété). Those ob­sessed with the superficial display of wit (les spirituelles) are paired with a portrait of true knowledge (la science). Women consumed by their thrifti­ness (les économes) are urged to follow balance or moderation (la regle). Women addicted to gambling (les joüeuses) should find a cure in occupation (l’occupation). And finally women entirely devoted to judicial disputes (les plaideuses) are countered by Pringy’s description of the pur­suit of inner peace (la paix).[8]

As this outline suggests, we will see that the Caracteres’ two major literary influences are moral literature and theological literature. These two didactic traditions intersect at various points, but also compete, as each focuses on opposite concerns: the former revolving around human behavior in society, the latter on God. Further down, unpacking the fraught relationship between the two parts of the text will reveal Pringy’s complicated participation in proto-feminism.

The Moralist Influence: the Social Aspects of Vice

The sections on vice in the Caracteres share unmistakable characteris­tics with secular mundane moralist literature, among the literary spearheads of the Grand Siècle. This included, among others, the writings of Saint-Evremond, Mme de Sablé, La Rochefoucauld, La Fontaine, and La Bruyère, whose famous work shared the same title as Pringy’s text. The exploration of human interiority undertaken by the moralists focused on its relationship to social behavior rather than on humans’ relationship to God. The moralists were working towards a universal definition of man (qua man, not qua species) through a kind of representatively exhaustive classification of behavior, with varying degrees of systematization.

Pringy’s portraits of the vices are indeed an effort at a systematic cate­gorization of the various types of women: coquettes, zealots, précieuses (though she never uses the term), misers, gamblers, and meddlers. Moreo­ver, the secular side of her moralism is exhibited in her use of tropes that belong to the collective discourse of the late seventeenth-century moral­ists. Of course, in this Siècle Moraliste, such tropes were not confined to strictly moralist texts. They were part of any discourse that focused on the description and policing of sociability, and discussions of politesse or gal­anterie were equally found in texts by La Rochefoucauld and La Fontaine as in those by Molière, Scudéry, Lafayette, and so on. High society and the expectations it produced for its members form the backdrop against which Pringy paints her vices. Human behavior is not the simple exteriorization of inner qualities. The human soul is beset by an unquenchable and perverting self-love, socially manifest in a ubiquitous hypocrisy that it is the moralist’s duty to unveil.

Pringy’s rhetorical tactics are what most underscore the moralist influ­ence in her treatise. If her portraits always exceed the familiar anecdotal, aphoristic, or even fragmentary nature of the classical moralists, sections of her text have sententious elements. In many passages, she engages in the seductive prosody and flavor of the moralist pique. The examples that follow, taken from the chapters on vice which seem to contain the major­ity of them, show Pringy’s sense of repartee. Many of these excerpts could conceivably belong to a book of maxims:

Une fille à peine commence-t-elle à parler qu’on lui ap­prend de jolies choses et non pas d’utiles, ses premieres démarches sont pour la dance, et sans s’embarrasser d’en faire une femme forte, on en veut faire une fille aimable, et on ne lui montre qu’à plaire sans songer à lui apprendre à vivre. (Caracteres 70)[9]

Une fille ne connoît sa religion que par son Cathe­chisme, les sciences que par le nom, et toutes les bonnes choses qu’en idées (Caracteres 71).

L’orgüeil leur fait usurper l’autorité sur des personnes qu’ils ne connoissent pas, la dissimulation leur fait obtenir une approbation qu’ils ne méritent pas, et la cruauté leur fait exercer une tyrannie qui ne se doit pas. (Caracteres 77–78)

Une femme effleure les sciences et ne les approfondit jamais. (Caracteres 85)

Une femme, à qui la galanterie et la vanité n’ont point touché le cœur, doit appréhender l’intérêt, et il est bien rare qu’elle s’exempte d’aimer les richesses lorsqu’elle méprise l’ambition. (Caracteres 92)

The Caracteres are often punctuated by gnomic passages such as these containing rhythmic repetitions, as well as parallel, oppositional, and chiasmus structures. The stylistic similarities with classical moralist texts are striking, and, as in the case of the moralists, lend to her assertions a kind of world-engendering authority.

Finally, the text’s darkness also aligns her with the moralist tradition. The Caracteres pulsate with pessimism, with the dark realization that hu­man sociability is in its very nature corrupt, and that if there is any salvation from vice, it lies in the recognition of this ubiquitous corruption, in self-abnegation and retreat. Despite the edifying and didactic aim of the treatise, it more often than not conveys hopelessness rather than guidance, not only for those seeking out their own salvation but also for those read­ers who may have been or might now be in search of a redemptive description of female nature.[10]

A Corrective Theology

Pringy’s pessimism is also a function of the theological influences at work in her text, and is most felt in the irreconcilability of the work’s dual didactic function: moral (social or worldly) and theological. As Constant Venesoen shows in his annotations of the Caracteres, Pringy’s writing is infused with traces of her pious readings. She makes numerous allusions to passages from the Bible (particularly in the section dedicated to piety), and adapts—at times to the point of plagiarism—the religious doctrines of the most influential theologians and orators, notably Sénault, but also Bérulle, de Sales, Bossuet, and of course Louis Bourdaloue. In contrast with the vices, which are mostly descriptive, her virtues are prescriptive and their didactism often carries the heavy (and at times fanatical) tone of sermons and religious treatises. And while her theological influences are overtly Jesuit, her exhortations seem to carry Jansenist undertones. Often berating women’s “superbe” (an archaic term meaning hubris), Pringy does not tire of reminding her readers that true piety means humility to the point of abjection, and that to combat amour-propre one must combat any inclination for self-love that so easily slips into complacency. “Le même zèle qui l’élève [le cœur de l’homme] à Dieu par amour, qui l’unit au pro­chain par charité, l’abaisse aussi jusqu’à lui-même par une humilité profonde, et lui fait voir le néant et le peché qui lui sont propres” (Caracteres 84), writes Pringy in her description of piety.

La Querelle des Femmes — Emancipation or Salvation

Pringy’s text is a hybrid of two approaches that are at once in contra­diction and inextricably linked. Part moralist treatise, part theological exhortation, on the one hand the text promises to edify women and on the other does so in ways that seem demoralizing and debasing (certainly from the perspective of a 21st-century reader). And yet one of the major differ­ences between Pringy’s treatise and the forms of discourse that it brings together is that, though it is at times a universal discourse, it is also self-consciously a text about and for women. The Caracteres have as their subject the analysis and correction of human nature, but adapted to the needs and idiosyncrasies of women, written from the perspective of a woman. As such, it must inevitably be understood in the context of the Querelle des femmes, in which it participates.

The presence of Pringy in Winn’s survey of feminist texts remains rather surprising when one examines the entirety of the Caracteres. Ex­tracted from the others, the single chapter on erudition (“La Science”) that Winn chose to incorporate in her anthology is indeed a less damning pre­scription for women than Pringy’s chapters on the other corrective virtues. Yet, overall, Pringy’s heavy theological perspective espouses her cen­tury’s most reactionary and repressive views on women.

Women are described as limited by their physical and mental nature and thus unsuited for a variety of jobs, an idea that Pringy inserts in her description of la science aimed at encouraging women to seek out true knowledge: “Et si les hommes sont destinez à des emplois laborieux pour lesquels il faut de la science et de l’application, les femmes que l’usage a exclües de ces emplois avec justice, leur delicatesse ne permettant pas qu’elles en pussent soûtenir le poids, ne sont pas exclües de l’érudition” (Caracteres 89). Women are vain and fickle: “La galanterie est un goût du monde et des plaisirs en général, et cet esprit de bagatelle naît avec le sexe” (Caracteres 70). They are excessive, superficial, prone to idleness, and essentially vulnerable to the effects of amour-propre, as in this pas­sage from the beginning of “Les Bigotes:” “Les hommes l’ont [la fausse devotion] quelquefois par de grandes raisons de fortune, mais les femmes l’ont Presque toûjours par orgüeil et par amour propre” (Caracteres 76).Pringy does not merely replicate the commonplace observations on the inferiority of women that underlie texts such as Fénélon’s Traité de l’éducation des filles (1687), but develops the consequences of failing to recognize and contain the foibles of the feminine soul.[11] The most salient example connecting Pringy’s appraisal of women to the late seventeenthcentury zeitgeist remains the striking similarities between her Caracteres and Nicolas Boileau’s Satire X.[12]

Still, Pringy would not have been alone had she chosen a less repres­sive approach to her moralist treatise. When the Caracteres appeared in 1694, the century was no stranger to feminist protestations emerging in France as well as in England. Marie de Gournay had written L’Egalité des Hommes et des Femmes in 1622. Jacquette Guillaume had published Les Dames illustres: où, par bonnes et fortes Raisons, il se prouve que le Sexe feminin surpasse en toute Sorte de Genre le Sexe masculin in 1665. Poullain de la Barre consecutively—and anonymously—had put forth treatises on the equality of men and women and on women’s education (De l’Égalité des deux sexes, discours physique et moral où l’on voit l’importance de se défaire des préjugés; De l’Éducation des dames pour la conduite de l’esprit dans les sciences et dans les mœurs; De l’Excellence des hommes contre l’égalité des sexes, respectivelypublished in 1673, 1674, and 1675). Bathsua Makin in England had written An Essay To Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen in 1673. Also in Eng­land, the same year as Pringy’s Caracteres, Mary Astell wrote A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest. Finally, Gabrielle Suchon, an ex-nun who, like Pringy and Astell, highlighted her investment in theology and religion, wrote two philosophical treatises focusing on the rights of freedom, authority, and education that have been denied to women. Suchon’s first text, Traité de la morale et de la politique, was published one year prior to Pringy’s text.[13]

As there is little in common between many of these earlier proto-feminist writers and Pringy, it is not surprising that in his introduction Constant Venesoen raises the question of “La ‘Mysogynie’ de Madame de Pringy.” Pringy’s moralist treatise turns its back on the social realities women faced, concentrating instead on a conservative commitment to restricting women’s movements in the social sphere. Where de la Barre, for instance, underscores the qualities that show women’s potential for being successful theologians and orators, doctors and lawyers, Pringy chastises her sex for seeking to enter into these professions. She further methodically criticizes each and every possible avenue of action available to women outside of the confines of convent life: gallantry (les coquettes), erudition (les spirituelles), financial management (les économes), leisure (les joüeuses), and judicial knowledge (les plaideuses).[14] Her complete denial of any true accession by women to the kinds of arenas that may have brought them recognition as positive contributors to society leaves very little room for women’s fulfillment. Love, charity work, knowledge, the successful management of a household, leisure, and the participation in social justice, are described as always perverted into corrupt impulses.

To de la Barre’s and Suchon’s Cartesian call for a dismantling of mi­sogynist prejudice based on tradition rather than reflection, Pringy gives damning portraits of women based on hackneyed views of women’s vices, platitudes common to both theological morality and the secular moralistes. Her critique of women’s education is an implicit disparagement of préci­osité and Salon culture, and therefore not simply of secular, but also of worldly, education.[15] This double rejection (both of femmes savantes and femmes mondaines) shows the extent to which Pringy’s condemnation is both unique and inescapable: to be a femme mondaine is to make a mock­ery of true erudition, since it means paying more attention to fashion than to truth. Yet the accession to a state of erudition (being a femme savante) can never be attained, for “c’est ignorer le point de la science parfaite que de se reposer dans le chemin de la vérité… ” (Caracteres 90).

In this respect, Pringy’s conservatism even surpassed that of her con­temporaries, for if there was one thing on which feminists, educators, and Counter-Reformation theologians agreed, it was that, as mothers, women were responsible for educating future generations. Pringy does not men­tion, even in passing, women’s role as educators of others, nor any aspect of their familial identity. The women caricatured in her taxonomy of fe­male vice are completely bereft of familial ties. They are never described as wives, daughters, sisters, or mothers. Nor does Pringy offer family as a source of support or strength; aside from the bond a woman should create with Jesus Christ, salvation is a solitary endeavor.[16] Pringy’s desire to con­strain and isolate women is not only part of her socio-theological agenda, it is also reflected in the fabric of this text, which, mute about women’s ties to the various social systems to which they might belong, also cuts them off from any potentially supportive system.

Thus Pringy’s participation in proto-feminist literature is more prob­lematic than her inclusion in an anthology on “protestations féminines” would have us believe. Pringy does not share the optimism and extolling rhetoric of many proto-feminists (the most famous being Marie de Gournay, Jacquette Guillaume, and Poullain de la Barre). Her prose does not sing the praises of women, nor does it point an accusing finger at soci­ety’s misogyny. It is not a demonstration of the virtues of women, brought to challenge the opinions or ideas of a mixed readership. Pringy’s text, which might seem to gladly provide men with the weapons to further in­culpate the “fair sex,” is in fact not addressed to men at all. “Si je peux inspirer à chaque état le juste sentiment de se blamer, je serai contente” (Caracteres 69), she writes in her Preface. True, “voilà la suite d’une jeu­nesse mal employée, qui n’a eu d’instruction que celle qu’il faloit pour s’aimer advantage et se connoître moins” (Caracteres 71). In other words, social institutions have done nothing to discourage women’s natural vanity and self-love. Yet the burden to correct behavior lies on women rather than on society. The text’s aim is to generate self-awareness in its female readers, as well as a realization of their responsibility and their role in their own salvation.

Metaphysics and Proto-feminism

Pringy shares a few important characteristics with Gabrielle Suchon and Mary Astell, two important (though neglected) participants in the Querelle des femmes. Both were philosophers whose works are directly informed by the philosophical debates of their time. Pringy, Suchon, and Astell all published their works in the same couple of years: Suchon, her dense 700-page philosophical text entitled Traité de la morale et de la politique in 1693, and the first volume of Astell’s A serious proposal to the Ladies in 1694. Though Pringy’s Caracteres engages less in philoso­phical reflections than the other two texts, the three authors share a point of view or attitude regarding the question of women that may have con­tributed to their relative absence in current scholarship. All three articulate their ideas about women’s emancipation through the lens of salvation. They see it as a function of theological and metaphysical discourses, rather than as a result of social ones.

Some critics’ use of the term “proto-feminist” rather than “feminist” for these texts is due to the obvious anachronism that such nomenclature would entail. The prefix “proto” nevertheless does not prepare someone unacquainted with this literature for its telos. Indeed, though all three authors aim to help women, their ultimate goal is neither emancipation nor a fundamental shift in political and social structures that would further include women. Their goal is instead to provide women with the resources to become better Christians and improve their relationship to God. In other words, women’s happiness in this world (be it formulated as freedom, inner peace, moral fortitude or access to education) is inseparable from metaphysical fulfillment arrived at through constant introspection.

Given the strong social component of modern feminism in its fight against misogynistic social institutions, attitudes, ideologies, jurisdiction and so on, it is not surprising that the metaphysical and religious facets of proto-feminist literature are often overlooked by those compiling and an­notating anthologies of early feminist literature. However it behooves us to adapt our perspective to accommodate the fact that theology and meta­physics were not considered by proto-feminist writers as a tool of their oppression, represented instead the conditions of possibility of their lib­eration. Such a shift in critical perspective is already at the center of one anthology of articles about Mary Astell, which focuses on the metaphys­ico-theological side of her thought.  As one contributing scholar put it, “to miss the spiritual orientation here is not only to miss something necessary about pre-enlightenment organization of religion and state, but also to miss something about early feminism” (Achinstein, Reason, Gender, Faith 28).[17]

One element common to Pringy, Suchon, and Astell, in addition to the strong theological goal of their texts, is their adoption, with various de­grees of transparency and adherence, of a new approach to metaphysics: that of Descartes, whose methods and concept of a two-substance world provided these thinkers with the tools with which to rationally refute pre­vailing ideas about women.

Descartes had a strong female following and enjoyed conversations with women, whom he found less influenced by prejudice than men. He wrote that he had chosen to compose his Discours de la méthode in French rather than Latin so that “les femmes mêmes pussent entendre quelque chose” (Correspondance 30). The impact of Descartes on Pringy, Suchon, and Astell can help to explain some of what may seem to modern readers as a contradiction inherent in feminist texts whose telos is not in fact woman, but God. Even while the primary legacy of Cartesian thought for modernity is Descartes’ foundational rationalism—rather than his argu­ment for the existence of God, now given as proof of circular logic—the emphasis he put on the intellect and free will as constitutive of the human soul, was (as much for his contemporaries as for him) in line with, and not opposed to, faith.

For Suchon and Astell, the impact of Descartes’ dualism on a claim for the intellectual equality of women is probably the most salient influence of rationalism on feminism. By insisting on the duality of two distinct sub­stances—one being Mind, whose property is thought, and the other being Body, whose property is extension—Descartes really implied the first feminist argument to be taken up repeatedly by the proto-feminists: the mind has no gender. Gender being tied to the body, the resulting argument is that any deficiencies or shortcomings in women’s rational capacities must come not from a deficiency of their minds (the mind as God gave it to humans is perfect) but from the physical, social, political, and historical constraints to which women are subject. Gender inequality, Suchon and Astell remind their readers, is the consequence of prejudice reinforced by custom: “Thus Ignorance and a narrow Education lay the Foundation of Vice, and Imitation and Custom rear it up” writes Astell (27). Women are led to believe by the force of cultural habit that they are limited in their arenas of action, thus are squandering the use of their rational minds. The solution for both Suchon and Astell is to map out the conditions necessary for women to be able to focus inward, and ultimately on God.[18]

Pringy’s Dualism : the Paradox of Didactism

Pringy opens her chapter entitled “La Science” with the following statement: “L’Esprit est de tout sexe. L’ame est un être spirituel également capable de ses operations dans les femmes comme dans les hommes” (Caracteres 88). The idea mirrors almost exactly what Poullain de la Barre writes, and what both Suchon and Astell imply: namely that separating the mind from the body grants women the paradoxical freedom of being liber­ated by shedding their womanhood. However Pringy does not fully take advantage of the emancipatory possibilities of such a belief in the rest of her text. Her particular implementation of this dualism highlights instead the incompatibility of a socially viable salvation and a metaphysical salva­tion. Pringy’s Cartesianism emerges quickly as a less optimistic, as well as less obvious, influence in the text. Its impact on the text’s mechanism is nonetheless crucial. What appears as a philosophical attitude regarding rational methods of inquiry in Suchon and Astell (as well as de la Barre) expresses itself in the Caracteres’ form rather than in it its content. In other words, it is constitutive of the text’s dualistic structure.

As I mentioned earlier, the text is clearly demarcated into two types of chapters: embodied vices and descriptions of virtues. The Caracteres’ separation into vices and virtues is not only spatial: it affects the rhetoric, the images, and even the lexical field of both parts. The term “repos,” for instance, that is used throughout the text, has a different connotation de­pending on what type of chapter it belongs to. Translated as quiet, rest, or peace, it is a sought-after state of being when taken in the context of the vices, because in this case it signifies retreat, extraction from the constant social demands that pervert virtue into vice. In her description of miserly women, Pringy writes “Comme son désir l’inquiète, elle prend moins de repost qu’une autre” (Caracteres 96). Or again about gambling women: “Le jeu est une dangereuse passion, quelquefois il fait perdre en un jour, plus qu’on ne peut dépenser en une année, et la maison la plus riche et la mieux reglée ne sçauroit tenir contre la dissipation d’une joüeuse, qui pour son plaisir perd son repos…” (Caracteres 97). Conversely, in the context of the virtues, “repos” negatively connotes self-satisfaction: one’s pursuit of true knowledge, or of a life aligned with the path of Jesus Christ, should be tireless, constant work. In the section on piety Pringy writes: “On ne suit pas le Seigneur en s’arrêtant, c’est une course sans interruption qu’il faut que fasse la volonté, le moindre repos l’éloigne… ” (Caracteres 83). Or again, in the section on knowledge: “C’est ignorer le point de la science parfaite que de se reposer dans le chemin de la vérité…” (Caracteres 90).

These two distinct halves of the text can to some extent be superim­posed onto (and thus explained by) the previously described dichotomy between social moralism and religious moralism. As the list of section titles shows (Les Coquettes/La Modestie; Les Bigotes/La Piété; Les Spirituelles/La Science; etc.), the Caracteres bears the influence of two antithetical attitudes towards moral discourse. The vices are corporeal character types that are attached to bodies (social bodies, gendered bodies). They are inseparable from the particular social—and particularly female—being that incarnates them. The virtues, by contrast, are place­less, sexless ideals. The religious language that pulsates in them to the rhythm of religious sermons highlights the virtues as concepts presented to the reader, as objects of contemplation rather than as examples to follow. They are objects for the rational mind and can only be arrived at through the operations of the soul (judgment, imagination), and not through obser­vation. They belong to the metaphysical world of ideas, and not to the world of extended substances. In Cartesian terms, truth, which is attained through intellectual certainty, cannot be of the body, but must be a func­tion of the mind. Pringy’s refusal to provide imitable examples for her readers is thus an adaptation of the Cartesian tenet, though hers is not only a metaphysical question but an ethical one. For her, only moral perfections are the objects worthy of the soul’s judgments. It is noteworthy that her text is based on a value judgment absent from Descartes but pervasive in theology: vice is intertwined with the body; virtue transcends it.

Pringy’s decision to deny her readers virtuous examples is thus a de­liberate consequence of this dualism, and her reticence to paint virtue through the use of concrete specimens, the way she does for the vices, is evident even before the beginning of the text proper, as early as the Dedi­cation and Preface of the Caracteres.

The goal of the preface is to establish the Caracteres’ nature as an in­tended moral guide for women. The preface reads, referencing the unfavorable descriptions with which Pringy will begin her portraits:

J’espere que ces premieres démarches leur feront sentir le plaisir de la perfection, les éloigneront de l’Amour propre que je dépeins, et leur donneront le goût pour la sagesse. (Caracteres 69)

The first step in Pringy’s didactic method is to put off her readers to such a degree that they will seek perfection, hungry for it as an antidote to the vices they have just seen described, in which they may or may not reco­gnize themselves. The second step, the correction, reveals the exact nature of Pringy’s method. Dedicating her Caracteres to La Princesse Madame d’Orléans,[19]Duchesse de Nemours who is glorified as a paragon of virtue, Pringy announces women’s foibles with ease, but seems tongue-tied when it comes to depicting any virtue. In the dedication, she writes:

Je suis bien-heureuse de commencer à marquer à Vôtre Altesse mon profond respect, en publiant que vous êtes digne de celui de tout le monde, et je ne sçaurois trop m’aplaudir d’avoir trouvé l’occasion de vous apprendre en public la vénération que j’ai toujours eue en particulier pour V.A.  (Caracteres 67)

Yet despite this promise of a public laudation, a few lines later she conti­nues:

Je craindrois cepandant, Madame, en parlant de vos vertus, que vôtre modestie ne s’allarma(st) contre la vérité, et que vous me fissiez le juste reproche d’en avoir trop peu dit, par rapport à ce qui en est, et trop dit par rapport à ce que vous voulez qu’on en die. (Caracteres 68)

Pringy will say nothing more about these virtues to which she alludes: the Duchesse de Nemours may incarnate virtue, but it escapes description, as though the very act of describing might soil virtue’s perfections by giving it body. Hidden behind the rhetoric of familiar praise present in all the literary dedications of the seventeenth century, Pringy’s refusal to ex­pound upon the very virtues she seeks to inspire in her readers places the text, from its inception, in a difficult relationship to its own didacticism. She is not going to provide her readers with imitable examples. She will not lead her readers to virtue through emulation.

This initial refusal helps to frame the paradoxical position Pringy will take with regard to the dualist model. For Suchon and Astell, rhetorically divesting women of their corporeal shackle enables them to reveal women’s rational mind, the same mind they share with men. But they also recognize that women, as women, are caught in the tethers imposed upon them by the misconceptions of popular opinion, that they are fettered by the law, and hobbled by their lack of education. To exalt women’s rational mind, very concrete and real changes have to be implemented in the lives of women, hence Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies that outlines the creation of an educational establishment for women.

Pringy seems to take a hardline Cartesian approach to this issue. To embody virtue would be a travesty of it. It would mean trapping virtue in the attributes of the wrong substance. Had Pringy described virtuous char­acters instead of concepts, had she expounded upon the Duchess de Nemours’ virtue, her readers would not be exhorted to contemplate virtue as an idea to be judged by the soul, but would be forced to perceive the virtue in its embodied form. Vice described is vice perceived through imagination, and imagination is not any more reliable in the quest for the truth than are our senses. On the contrary, throughout the text imagination is portrayed as a source of misconception. Pringy writes:

Voilà l’usage des femmes spirituelles. Une grande idée d’esprit qu’elles ont dans l’imagination. Ce n’est point une connoissance, une regle, ni un sçavoir, c’est une idée ; c’est à dire une spacieuse étendüe qui comprend toutes les grandes choses. Un vaste lieu en elle-mêmes, où elles imaginent voir l’assemblage de toutes les differentes beautez de l’esprit. Elle font un mélange confus de tout ce qu’elles sçavent, et cet amas, de sciences imparfaites, remplit leur cœur aussi injustement que leur esprit. (Caracteres 86)

Since our senses are fallible, it is no wonder that vice, malleable like Des­cartes’ piece of wax, could trick us into appearing as a virtue. In Pringy’s text, the vices are plural (les coquettes, les bigotes, and so on) as they do not have one self-evident manifestation, but instead their essence is incar­nation. Virtue, however, contemplated in its purest form—that is, as a virtue rather than as the sum of the actions of a virtuous character—appears clearly and distinctly to us through our contemplation of it. Thus what she offers to her female readers is not“La Modeste” but “La Modestie,” “La Piété” rather than “La Pieuse” (and certainly not “Les Pieuses”).

Perhaps the biggest difference between Pringy’s approach and that of the other two proto-feminists is that Suchon and Astell focus by and large on the external constraints that affect women’s choices. Pringy zeroes in on something that significantly complicates her aim: women’s own sins. In order to lift the shackles imposed upon women by virtue of their being women, Pringy has to combat part of women themselves. The enemy is within, not without. In her text, women are encouraged to engage in a con­stant self-criticism that could have, on the surface, imitated the self-abnegation prescribed to men by the most pessimistic Christian faiths of the time. Yet part of Pringy’s dualistic structure reveals that her pessimism is not simply due to theological beliefs about our role in our own salva­tion, but is caused by the impossibility of actually locating the site of femininity, an impossibility that permeates all reflections pertaining to the Querelle des Femmes. Is it in the body or in the mind? Female interiority for Pringy is corrupted by imagination. It takes the place of an ideal interi­ority, a pure mind capable of perceiving truth. The question of the emancipation of woman, not yet formulated as such, pivots around a con­cept of a feminine interiority to be either celebrated or trained into a more universal concept of humanity as directed towards God.

Impossible Salvation

Earlier, I stated that through her vices Pringy systematically attacks the range of social activities associated with, or available to, women. There is one social sphere in which women were deeply and necessarily involved that Pringy seems to ignore: the family. Pringy’s text does not make any mention of women’s familial responsibilities as mothers, nor even as wives, daughters, or sisters. Even though it is in keeping with most mor­alist texts, which rarely point their scrutinizing gaze towards interactions within the family, the omission is curious given the didactic goal of the text. It could be interpreted in two ways. First, it serves to discourage women from turning to external structures as a source of support, as a morally positive influence, or as a source of fulfillment. The relationship to God and thus the path to spiritual fulfillment is a solitary experience, and Pringy’s textual strategy is to isolate women from these external structures.[20]

Second, it implies that in the case of familial bonds, there is no vice to be unveiled, for family relationships do not “count” as social relationships. This is relevant because imbedded in the fabric of Pringy’s text, particu­larly in her use of examples, is the recurrent idea that the locus of women’s sin is their sociability. It is by default sinful to be social. Vice is inherent to sociability the way original sin is inherent at birth:

Une femme élevée avec de bons principes, née avec [de] bonnes inclinations, qui cependant veut se conserver la liberté d’une societé agreable, et la reserve d’une sagesse entiere, ne trouve qu’un moyen pour y parvenir ; c’est l’hypocrisie qui lui fait trouver un accord pour concilier Dieu et le monde, et pour satisfaire son amour propre sans blesser la devotion. (Caracteres 76–77)

Hypocrisy is the inevitable price to be paid for any attempt, be it well-intentioned or not, to conciliate God and the world, self-interest and devotion. The use of chiasmus in the sentence creates a syllogism: God is to devotion as the World is to amour-propre. The pitfall of sociability is that it leads to an idolatry of the self.

 Sociability’s sinfulness is the first idea of the text, established in the very first vice that Pringy describes; coquetry is first and foremost a bro­ken social relationship, a flawed mode of sociability (in this case, seduction). To underscore her point, Pringy does not describe a static co­quette, stilled for the portrait, but coquettes in action:

On les estime autant qu’elles aiment, pour un moment. La beauté nous arête, l’esprit nous fixe et les défauts nous chassent. Mille agrémens les font chercher, mille raisons les font fuyr. La volupté fait qu’on y retourne, et la sagesse fait qu’on n’y reste pas et qu’on leur parle toujours avec plus de flaterie que d’attachement. (Caracteres 72)

This is not so much a portrait as it is a scene depicting a (failed) social interaction, presumably with the intent of demonstrating to the coquette the error of her calculations. What is primarily coquettes’ sin? That they exist in and for social interaction; that they are a blur of superficial rela­tions; that they exist only socially. This is not only evident in the frenzied rhythm and contradictory movements that characterize coquettes’ world (“for a moment,” “arrests us (…) entraps us (…) chase us away,” “search,” “retreat,” “return,” etc.), but it is also supported by the accompa­nying virtue. Had Pringy intended to valorize a kind of ideal love (platonic, for instance) over coquetry, the corrective virtue might have been “l’estime” (respect). The corrective virtue that accompanies co­quetry, however, is modesty, which calls for the woman to retreat into herself, rather than for her to reform her social desire. Coquetry, the first vice, is the sin of sociability. 

In a similar move, the bigotes’sin is framed in terms of the social, and not of false devotion, since their zealotry most profoundly affects the so­cial relationships around them. It is significant that Pringy here focuses less on the effects of false devotion on the salvation of women’s souls than on the repercussions of false devotion on a woman’s performance of de­votion in the world:

Voilà l’exercice des devotes du temps, la recherche des employs qui leur assujettissent le plus de malheureux, et qui les élevent au dessus d’une conduite ordinaire. Le soin de cacher leur dessein, afin de parvenir plus aisément à leurs projets, et de s’exprimer en termes humbles pour se faire estimer davantage, et l’application continuelle à sup­poser des crimes à ceux qui ont du malheur, et à nourrir de larmes et d’ignominie ceux que la providence leur envoye pour les nourrir de pain. (Caracteres 79)

The consequences of this vice are social, not spiritual. The social expres­sion, or the exteriorization of religious devotion, is charity, but in Pringy’s vision, “voilà l’exercice des devotes du temps.” She does not distinguish between good charity and bad charity, or even between authentic charity and hypocritical charity (good actions with sinful motives), but says that any charity is inevitably corrupted: thus the corrective virtue is piety, not charity. It is not a call to better perform pious acts, but to reform the self.

The social aspect of the vice is repeated for all of the vices. The spiri­tuelles are, like coquettes and zealots, sinful in that they limit themselves to the social dimension of their endeavor, to the play and associations of words in accordance with the rules of salon eloquence rather than with the organization of ideas in accordance to logic, wisdom, and the search for truth. And at the forefront of Pringy’s attack on misers, gamblers, and liti­gious women is her condemnation of these women’s deplorable attachment to the vain echoes of social life: money devoid of the value of things it is capable of acquiring (since misers do not buy), busyness with­out accomplishments, and engagement with superfluous legal proceedings. Pringy’s text recognizes women’s desperate efforts to participate in the world, but only insofar as these efforts are ultimately perverted. 

Pringy’s aim, by giving her readers abstract notions to contemplate rather than embodied portraits of virtues to perceive, is to help extract them from the very arena that is participating in their spiritual bankruptcy. One of her rhetorical tactics to help make possible this extraction is to further de-corporealize the virtues. In addition to inciting women to re­move themselves from social activity, she textually erases their gender. While women are clearly the subjects (thematically and grammatically) of the vices, in the chapters dedicated to the virtues, the grammatical subjects often revert to a neutral masculine: it is the heart, the mind, or the soul that feels, acts, or should act. Her text oscillates between female and male gen­der pronouns, ultimately serving to make the concept of gender itself meaningless. Parsimonious with the terms “man” and “woman,” Pringy will instead insist that the actors in her portrayal of the virtues are parts of the psyche rather than whole people: the mind (l’esprit), the soul (l’âme) and the heart (le coeur) are much more often the agents in this half of the text. The choice of these “organs” is in contradistinction to the inherent social component of the vices (specifically incarnated by women) and indicates the extent to which virtue is intrinsically incompatible with so­ciability. By choosing to concentrate on humans’ agency in metonymical symbols (the mind, the heart, and the soul) that are not socially readable in the way that a “man” or a “woman” would immediately be, Pringy ensures that virtue exists only for pure entities, unsoiled by the world’s projections of identity.[21]

Mais, quand la foi a succedé au soin de son instruction, qu’il est seur d’avoir trouvé la voie, la vérité et la vie, qu’il goûte une paix merveilleuse que la verité répand dans son ame, que son cœur rempli de charité n’a plus de mouve­mens qui ne le portent à la joye de l’éternité, son esprit se trouve convaincu, son ame est remplie d’onction et la prati­que de la vertu devient facile quand l’esprit connoît avec seureté ce qu’il doit, et que le fruit de cette connoissance est le zele de la volonté. (Caracteres 81–82)

The use of the subject pronoun “il” introduced at the beginning of this paragraph without any established antecedent is destabilizing for the reader. Obviously Pringy is not referring to men, since they are rarely ad­dressed, except in comparison to women. The exact nature of this “il” is not explicitly revealed, though through the meaning of the sentence we can infer that it refers to “l’esprit” (the mind). Again, through metonymi­cal association, “l’esprit” comes to represent the entire being, replete with a heart (“son coeur rempli de charité”) and a soul (“son ame est remplie d’onction”), but a consciousness denied of any kind of social readability. These organs, these parts of the psyche, can be conceptualized, but not seen. They are at the core of human identity, and yet referenced as they are, separated from a physical shell, they escape any discrete manifesta­tions of existence.

The effects of this de-corporealization are ambiguous, and point to, as I mentioned in passing earlier, a problematic repercussion of what is os­tensibly one of the liberating aspects of dualism: the freedom of dualism is that women are not reduced to their gender. In Pringy’s version, in order for women to improve themselves, to become fulfilled humans, they must divest themselves of any characteristics that define them as women. They must strip themselves of their womanhood. Pringy’s text enacts this re­peatedly by condemning all of women’s social identities (sexual, domestic, religious, professional, leisurely), and then by denying them any identificatory relationship to the virtues. The virtues remain ideals that can only be accessed inwardly, through the soul, and not through embodiment.

As the quotation above showed, not just the virtues are disembodied in this half of Pringy’s text. She also works to dissociate the human subject from its body by depicting it through synecdochal representations that have us conceptualize (rather than “perceive”) the subjects of her moralist text. Exemplarity itself is vice because it belongs to the unreliable world of appearance and perception. Though Pringy does punctuate the virtues with sentences distinguishing femininity from masculinity (and the moral consequences of these differences), for the most part she attempts to com­pletely peel virtue away from the gendered body. The genderless organs that I mentioned above, and moreover the absence of any gender (in stark contrast with the spirited attack on women) would seem to indicate, in the lexical choices Pringy makes, that for the most part women can only be saved when their womanhood is stripped away, when they do not appear or live as women. Given the text’s specific address to women, the question a reader might ask Pringy is whether a woman, qua woman, can be saved. To a modern reader, it is perhaps the most disturbingly “anti-feminist” aspect of the text, and more frustratingly, we may never know how this text was received by the readers it intended to influence.

Pringy’s insistence, in the half of the text dedicated to vices, that women often cannot help themselves from acting sinfully because their womanhood naturally leads them into vice, induces her to focus on the habit of moral action as a corrective tool. Again, in the Preface she writes: “Et je voudrois que toutes les femmes que je censure par ma description m’aprouvassent par une metamorphose de moeurs…” (Caracteres 70). While both the virtues and the human subject are represented as abstract objects to be thought of rather than perceived in their physical incarna­tions, this practical aspect of Pringy’s didactism confuses the clean binarity of her dualism. If a woman is in the habit of acting correctly, if she is in the habit of doubting her hubris, for example, or of performing good acts of charity, then “c’est à la constance des oeuvres que la modes­tie impose ses loix” (Caracteres 74).  In other words, despite the implicit injunction to contemplation that Pringy’s rhetoric implies, some of her prescriptive directives belong to the realm of action and not contemplation. 

The logic of her text induces a kind of aporia: women are prone to vice and sin because their constitution makes them prefer extroversion (“il est difficile à une femme de ne jamais sortir de soi-même” (Caracteres 74), and thus sociability. Sociability is the breeding ground of sin, as it is op­posed to an authentic contemplation of God. Yet a corrupt relationship to divinity is described by Pringy as having mostly social repercussions, not spiritual ones. Pringy does not take the opportunity to introduce the con­cept of grace. Consequently, women are left to their own contemplation without any mention of divine intervention, meaning that their only ave­nue towards salvation lies either in complete isolation or in the social realm of the habit of good actions. 

On the one hand, Pringy’s text respects the distinction between the two substances (mind and body) by doing what it can to keep them separated, and protecting the objects of the mind from being contaminated by the perceptions of the body. On the other hand, Pringy’s text short-circuits any salvation when it sends the reader to the sphere of action for improvement.  Salvation must happen on both levels, the text seems to say, in these two spheres that are linked but also constituted as mutually exclusive. Where is woman’s salvation, and thus emancipation, to be found then? Is it in the conditioning of the social body, even though this body is negated through­out her text and rejected for its social readability? Or is salvation to be found inward, in a retreat from the world, a concentrated contemplation of virtue whose purity is safeguarded by its lack of expression? In what sphere should women actualize themselves? In the mind-substance or in the body-substance?

In the end, what seems to emerge in Pringy’s text is not so much a form of rebellion, as Winn would have us believe, as much as a concep­tion of emancipation and freedom that both requires self-reliance and is interior. The modernity of her text lies in that it exposes, through its inter­nal tensions, the insolubility at the heart of the question of gender, still relevant today, as to whether or not gender is tied to an essence. In the course of this, something else emerges that has perhaps more influence on the moral aspects of literature than questions of gender ever would: in Pringy’s version of the female soul, the relationship between the interior self and the social self is neither one of transparency nor of causality. For Pringy, these two selves coexist, but their link to each other is effectively severed by the text. Pringy’s unique type of proto-feminism reflects, in the realm of the moral treatise, what La Princesse de Clèves did in the realm of fiction: it shows that henceforth, interior experience has importance beyond the mere exteriorizing of it because it is not its supplement or ex­planation, but rather the site of an irreducible disjunction between self and world. It is not, I think, a coincidence that the eighteenth century novel increasingly focuses on interior experience and sentiment as a method of fictionalizing moral philosophy and negotiating the complex ways that interiority and action are linked. Furthermore, if the novel does so more than ever from the vantage point of female protagonists, it is because, as Pringy’s text shows, the problem of both women’s freedom and women’s salvation in early-modern French society cannot help but reveal the dis­connect between an epistemology based on interior experience and one born out of one’s actions in the world.

Barnard College



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Plazenet, Laurence. Port-Royal. Paris: Flammarion, 2012.

Pringy, Jeanne-Michelle de. Les Differens caracteres des femmes avec la description de l’amour propre (Edition de 1694). Honoré Champion, 2002.

Suchon, Gabrielle. A Woman Who Defends All the Persons of her Sex: Selected Philosophical and Moral Writings. Edited and Translated by Domna C. Stanton and Rebecca M. Wilkin. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010.

Winn, Colette H. Protestations et revendications féminines. Textes oubliés et inédits. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2002.


[1]Winn’s anthology begins with Marie le Gendre’s L’Exercice de l’ame vertueuse from 1597, and Pringy’s text closes the collection. Also included, chronologically, are excerpts from Charlotte de Brachart’s Harengue, Marguerite de Valois’ Discours docte et subtil, Suzanne de Nervèse’s Apologie en faveur des femmes, Jacqueline de Miremont’s Apologie pour les Dames, Jacquette Guillaume’s Les Dames illustres, and Gabrielle Suchon’s Traité de la morale et de la politique.

[2] The term “proto-feminist” has, with some reservation on the part of certain scholars, come to designate texts addressing feminist concerns before feminism became a political or literary movement. To some extent, many of these “proto-feminist” texts should be considered feminist texts regardless. However, the author whom I analyze here does not share the same goals as either modern feminists or as her outspoken contemporaries, justifying the use of term “proto-feminist.”

[3] Pringy would affix her name to the 1699 edition, however the monthly periodical Le Mercure de France identified her as the author as early as December 1694.

[4] According to Constant Venesoen, an earlier work, Les Diférens caracteres de l’amour (1685) was falsely attributed to Pringy. Venesoen’s analysis of the Mercure’s announcement of the text convincingly shows that this attribution was highly improbable, as it was supposedly written by an “Autheur […] de l’Académie Françoise” (from the Mercure galant, November 1684, 310–311).  For a more detailed view of Pringy’s bio-bibliography, see Venesoen’s critical edition of Les Differens caractères des femmes avec la description de l’amour propre (Edition de 1694), Honoré Champion, 2002, 13–26.

[5] Whether moralist writing is considered a “genre” is up for debate. See Daniel Acke’s Vauvenargues, moraliste in which he attempts to define this genre he called “la moralistique” (Acke 81–84).

[6] By which I mean anticipating concerns, approaches, strategies or goals that were to be taken up in later incarnations of feminist or moralist literature.

[7] On the occasion of the death of a certain Mr Villémarechal, the 1705 January issue of Le Mercure galant references Pringy as one of the regulars at his Thursday Salon: “Me de Pringi y brilloit beaucoup. Vous sçavez qu’elle a un discernement fort juste pour la découverte des veritez les plus abstraites, & que dans la recherche qu’elle en fait, elle procede avec une précision qui fait juger de la netteté & de la profondeur de son esprit" (258–259). This mention, along with some evidence that she was friends with Louis Bourdaloue’s sister, are as of yet the only known references to her worldly connections.

[8] Her description of amour-propre, a second text printed within the same volume, is a unified treatise-like text that thematically repeats this progression of the six character vices. It aims to show that at the heart of each vice is a disordered and excessive self-love, present in all of mankind but magnified to the point of affliction in women due to their inherent weakness. The Differens caracteres des femmes is the central focus of this article, and not the ensuing Description de l’amour propre.

[9]All Pringy quotations are taken from Constant Venesoen’s annotated edition, Les Differens caracteres des femmes avec la description de l’amour propre (Edition de 1694), Honoré Champion, 2002. Included in the edition are the 1699 variants. I could not take into account the variants without going beyond the scope of this project, but they are at times revealing and I encourage readers to consider their implications.

[10]“Mon dessein étant de concourir à la perfection de celles dont je décris les veritables Caracteres,” begins her Preface, “j’ai crû les dédomager de la peine qu’elles auront à se reconnoitre dans un Portrait qui leur ressemble, par les moyens que je leur donne de corriger leurs défauts” (Caracteres 69).Thus, unlike the classical moralists whose profound pessimism is emphasized by the fact that their prescriptive contribution to moral conduct is merely implied in the immoral counter-examples, Pringy, taking her cue from religious sermons and treatises, actually provides concrete solutions to combat vice. In other words, the presentation of the text explicitly seems to promise education and redemption.

[11]“Les femmes ont d’ordinaire l’esprit encore plus faible et plus curieux que les hommes; aussi n’est-il point à propos de les engager dans des études dont elles pourraient s’entêter: elles ne doivent ni gouverner l’état, ni faire la guerre, ni entrer dans le ministère des choses sacrées; ainsi, elles peuvent se passer de certaines connaissances étendues qui appartiennent à la politique, à l'art militaire, à la jurisprudence, à la philosophie et à la théologie. La plupart même des arts mécaniques ne leur conviennent pas: elles sont faites pour des exercices modérés” (Traité de l’éducation des filles 3–4). With the important exception of the reference to theology and philosophy, Fénélon’s notions about women’s flaws are also deployed throughout Pringy’s text, not as the starting point for finding other avenues of excellence (as it is for Fénelon, who goes on to praise them for their domestic capabilities) but as the justification for their moral weakness and passage into vice.

[12] The choice and progression of character vices in Pringy’s Caracteres are almost identical to those Boileau’s Satire X, starting with the coquettes and ending with the “plaideuses.” As Venesoen points out, Boileau wrote his satire of women 30 years prior to its publication, but refrained from publishing it until 1694, the year the Caracteres were published. Given the lack of biographical information on Pringy, there is little to explain this uncanny similarity, except perhaps to suggest that this had become a meme circulating among men and women of letters. 

[13]We could add to this list Charlotte de Crachart’s Harengue (1604); Marguerite de Valois’ Discours docte et subtil (1618); the long list of rebuttals to Alexis Trousset’s polemical Alphabet de l’imperfection et malice des femmes… dédié à la plus mauvaise du monde (1617);Suzanne de Nervèse’s Apologie en faveur des femmes; and Jacqueline De Miremont’s Apologie pour les Dames.

[14]Consider Barre’s statement that “C’est un plaisir d’entendre une femme qui se mêle de plaider” (Barre 61) and Pringy’s chapter against “Les Plaideuses.”

[15]“… toute l’érudition ne sçauroit luy plaire sans politesse ; parce que la sagesse et la verité n’est pas son étude, mais la delicatesse et l’usage : et pourveu qu’elle observe une pureté d’expressions qui l’exempte de pecher contre les loix du beau langage, elle se repose du surplus et ne s’embarrasse guere de penser comme une autre pourveu qu’une autre ne parle pas comme elle” (Caracteres 85–86). Their emphasis on appearance, on the desire to shine, rather than on the substance of true knowledge, is of course a common criticism of the précieuses.

[16] The absence of any reference to marriage should however be considered in the context of the century’s complicated relationship to the institution. It was seen as necessary to ensure the survival of estates and wealth, as well as to create political alliances, but as being at odds with personal happiness. Marriages were commonly recognized by moralists, theologians, and women themselves as joyless, trying affairs that challenged men’s virtues and attracted further disdain to women. The explicit advocating of celibacy was common in proto-feminist texts, but marriage was condemned by more worldly personalities as well. The trope of the “mal-marriée,” present in European fiction since the Middle Ages, continued to be a popular theme often discussed in Salons.

[17] Though this extends beyond the scope of the present study, further attention should be given to the primary role of theology in women’s quest for happiness and fulfillment in seventeenth century France, particularly given the importance of certain monastic institutions as communities of women. Port-Royal is an important example of this. Now all too easily conflated with Jansenism and the male figures that both defended Cornelius Jansenius’ L’Augustinus against papal law, and relied on Port-Royal as a spiritual sanctuary, Port-Royal was first and foremost a successful Abbey for women. Its dismantling and the dispersion of its nuns by Louis XIV in 1709 saw the end of this self-sufficient community of women who valued inner vocation, retreat, and most importantly, a relationship to God free of mediation. For further reading on the subject of Port-Royal, see Laurence Plazenet’s anthology Port-Royal, Paris: Flammarion, 2012.

[18] For Suchon, this means a very concrete analysis of the deprivations that women face in all aspects of their lives (deprivation of freedom, education, power), and a reasoned demonstration that freedom, rationality, and the ability to express one’s will are inalienable rights, gifts given to us by God that it is our duty to cultivate. Among many of the freedoms that Suchon claimed was a woman’s ability to choose when, if ever, to enter religious life; serving God can take many forms, and is never successfully achieved through coercion. In England, Descartes was primarily read through the works of Nicolas Malebranche, who sought to synthesize Cartesian rationalism and Augustinian theology in his “vision in God.” For Astell, whose engagement with Descartes is politically tied to a defense of the traditional Monarchy and of the Anglican Church against Lockean empiricism and liberalism, providing women with the means to have a religious education will form their capable minds to be able to access God and the one True Religion: the Church of England. In the case of both Astell and Suchon, the importance of viewing the mind as separate from the body has a double consequence. It liberates women from essentializing statements about their capacities, and it restores the body to its just and valued place. The body is not an extension or a translation of the qualities of the mind, but without proper treatment of the person as body, as social subject, the mind is denied the opportunity to fulfill its potential.


[19] The Duchesse de Nemours (1625–1707), born Marie d’Orléans-Longueville, had for a long time been a patron to women writers, particularly those who wrote about inequalities between the sexes. She was also known for helping women who had suffered from forced marriages or neglectful husbands. She herself, after the death of her mother, was disinherited and then married against her will by her father and stepmother, who wished to favor their own children.

[20] Venesoen hypothesizes that Pringy was educated either at Port-Royal, or more likely, at Saint-Cyr. Both schools advocated forging an individual and unique relationship to God through direct reading of the scriptures and contemplation. Saint-Cyr in particular became known for its ties to Madame de Guyon, who brought Quietism (and thus controversy) to the school. Quietism encouraged complete passivity, silent prayer—so as to be as receptive as possible to God’s grace—and complete retreat from the world, which included participation in pious actions. The similarities with Quietism in Pringy’s text are fairly salient.

[21] The gender-specificity of a couple of Pringy’s virtues is linked to the history of the concepts. Indeed, both modestie and occupation have a long history in anti-women literature: the two recurrent charges against women in the anti camp of the Querelle des Femmes is that women’s sexuality is dangerous, and a bored woman is up to no good. This helps explain that, given Pringy’s incorporation of circulating moralist commonplaces, Pringy addresses herself much more to women throughout those two chapters than in other chapters.

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